Solving The Insoluble Problem of Employee Engagement and Customer Loyalty


Share on LinkedIn

Allow me to start this conversation by sharing with you one of my favourite stories (of wisdom).

Dividing Camels
There was once a Sufi who wanted to make sure his disciples would, after his death, find the right teacher of the Way for them. He, therefore …. left his disciples seventeen camels with this order: ‘You will divide the camels among the three of you in the following proportions: the oldest shall have half, the middle in age one third, and the youngest shall have one ninth.’

… the disciples were at first amazed at such an inefficient disposition of their Master’s assets. Some said, ‘Let us own the camels communally,’ others sought advice and then said, ‘We have been told to make the nearest possible division,’ others were told by a judge to sell the camels and divide the money; and yet others held that the will was null and void because its provisions could not be executed.

Then the fell to thinking that there might be some hidden wisdom to the Master’s bequest, so they made enquiries as to who could solve insoluble problems.

Everyone they tried failed, until they arrived at the door of … Hazrat Ali. He said: ‘This is your solution. I will add one camel to the number. Out of the eighteen camels you will give half – nine camels – to the oldest disciple. The second shall have a third of the total, which is six camels. The last disciple may have one-ninth, which is two camels. That makes seventeen. One, my camel, is left over to be returned to me.’

This is how the disciples found the teacher for them.

Idries Shah, Thinkers Of The East

Have you watched The Matrix? It is movie that can be listened to at so many levels. I find the same to be the case for this story. For the sake of this conversation, let me highlight this:

1. The conventional ‘leaders’ had supplied conventional advice which was ok for conventional matters. But not for this unusual one;

2. It is what Hazrat Ali put into the game at hand (‘one camel’) that ended up solving the insoluble problem facing the disciples; and

3. The ‘one camel’ does not refer to a physical camel. The ‘one camel’ refers to wisdom, compassion, love, humanity – the essentials of human existence and authentic community. There can never be a human being only human beings; to be human is to be social.

What relevance does this have to the world of business – particularly managing and leadership? Allow me to answer that question with this story (bolding mine):

Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit by Robin P.
“My husband passed away under tragic circumstances …. I couldn’t being to think of what was going to happen for our children, our family, or for me.

When I first heard the news, I was numb, but I needed to make a call. Strangely enough, the call wasn’t to an immediate family member. It was to my employer, That one action made me realize the strong connection I felt with my co-workers and the Zappos culture…

When my senior manager received by hysterical call, she showed great compassion and gave me sound advice to calm me. She assured me that I shouldn’t be concerned with anything else but to take care of myself and my family, and that – day or night – I should call if I needed anything. After that she gave me every single one of her phone numbers, I knew she meant it.

As much as Zappos meant to me before, the things they did after my husband passed amazed and humbled me. I was reassured that I shouldn’t feel pressure to return to work as soon as possible. They even volunteered to cater the reception for my husband’s service….

There was always someone there to listen, offer consoling words, sit with me as I released my tears, or just give a hug. Co-workers and managers alike allowed me time to heal and gave me strength I needed to continue as a contributing and functioning member of the team.

… the most important contributions from my extended family at Zappos were support and friendship. Zappos was my refuge and healing place that gave me everything I needed to continue on with my life.”

Delivering Happiness

It occurs to the that the worst thing that has happened to the world of business is the language of relationship: customer relationships, customer engagement, employee engagement, social.. Why? It masks the reality of the business world and organisational life. What reality? Business and organisational worlds are transactional. There is no genuine care for customers as human beings. There is no genuine care for employees as human beings. There is no genuine care for suppliers/partners as human beings. My lived experience (25+ years) is that those who occupy management and leadership positions are not in touch with their humanity. I doubt that most genuinely care even for themselves as human beings rather than human doings, human ‘achieve-ings’.

I invite you to listen to the words of Peter Senge: “To become a leader, first you must become a human being.”

It occurs to me that all Customer and Employee efforts, like the advice-solutions offered by the conventional leaders to the disciples, are likely to fall short until the advice of Peter Senge is heeded. When it is heeded, and lived, like it is by Tony Hsieh (the CEO of Zappos) then the Tops and Middles will be able to call forth the best from the folks in the business to create meaningful-strong-loyal relationships with customers. With the folks working in the business and directly/indirectly serving customers. And suppliers/partners.

I thank you for listening and invite you to put your humanity into the game of living no matter where this living occurs: with customers, in the workplace, at home….

Maz Iqbal
Experienced management consultant and customer strategist who has been grappling with 'customer-centric business' since early 1999.


  1. The element of human touch is always a great addition to any form of interaction a company fosters (whether among employees or with its customers). It makes the connection more genuine. Customers who are treated with sincere willingness to help by representatives or employees who see their coworkers as extended family will pay back with loyalty and engagement. It’s the secret to making people stay and even attract others to join your network.

  2. Great points, Maz. “the worst thing that has happened to the world of business is the language of relationship.” – I’m assuming you mean how that language has eroded. I thought about your column, and recognize that in the name of productivity improvement, we have inadvertently engineered massive impediments to fostering sincere, meaningful, and productive relationships. Examples: outsourcing, dashboards, remote monitoring and measuring, rigid policies, conversational scripts, marketing channels, process management, forcing customers to engage in online chat and asynchronous communication.

    When businesses put these in place, they lose vital connectedness to employees, customers, and prospects.

  3. I agree 100% with Peter Senge: “To become a leader, first you must become a human being.” And your follow-on declaration: “all Customer and Employee efforts, like the advice-solutions offered by the conventional leaders to the disciples, are likely to fall short until the advice of Peter Senge is heeded.”

    Over the past few decades in many companies it seems the more we talk about relationships the farther away we’ve come from making them real. For example, when customer satisfaction was part of TQM, we were trying to make significant improvements in the quality of products and processes.
    – In the mid-90s when customer relationship management databases (CRM) were all-the-rage, it *seemed* like we were building relationships, but that technique proved to be more me-focused than relationship-focused, at least if you ask customers how they feel about upselling and cross-selling and the all-too-oftenl ritual of re-stating your entire story when calling in to a company.
    – In the early-00s when experiential marketing and word of mouth marketing came into vogue, we emphasized expansion of positives without much thought of minimizing negatives in supplier-customer interactions.
    – In the mid-00s when NPS took center stage, it became even more clear that our surveys are about what customers can do for us, and what they might do for us on top of the fair market value they’ve already paid us.
    – Touchpoint and journey mapping are typically aimed at transactions rather than the end-to-end experience customers have, and focused on revenue uptick.
    – Companies are now putting their eggs into the VoC basket and/or the loyalty management basket, without seeing a strong need for commitment to the bridge between those two camps: acting extensively on VoC to *earn* customer loyalty (i.e. relationship strength). Ironically, this bridge would require companies to return to the TQM-oriented beginnings of customer relationship efforts where significant product and process improvements are achieved through widespread employee and supplier engagement toward the common good.

    Friendships come in at least two shades: the deeper ones and the more superficial ones. For the former, there’s a deeper degree of give-and-take, and certainly responsiveness to the other party’s suggestions for improvement: the relationships we value the most tend to be with people who inspire us to be better than we’d be without them. A good corollary for customer relationship-building. If you seek their feedback, be committed to act upon it wholeheartedly.

    Wholehearted treatment of customers means the same goes for all employees and for their expected contributions to customer relationship-building. And of course to suppliers and alliance and channel partners. There’s much to be said of human-to-human business management. Some related articles may be of interest to readers who seek wholehearted relationships:
    Loving Customers for Customer Experience Excellence
    Loving Suppliers for Customer Experience Excellence
    Employee Engagement: Living Your Brand Promise
    Exploring the Elusive ROI of Customer Experience Management

  4. Hello Michael, Alistair, Andrew, and Lynn,

    I thank each of you for making the time to share that which you have shared. What can I say? I find myself to be in total agreement with you. More importantly, to listen to your sharing I find myself uplifted: you get it and I am sure that in your work you are putting this getting into action. And as such the seeds of possibility (of genuine care for employees, for value chain partners, for customers) lie in each of you – and me.

    Live well.

    At your service | with my love


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here