Recently, while pondering the surge in discussion about customer centricity and customer focus over the last 10 years, I wondered: do employees in most organisations subtly resent their customers?
It has always struck me as just a little odd that commercial enterprises must explicitly say that they are customer focused and create programs and approaches to instil employees with a zeal for serving customers.
After all the only function of a commercial enterprise is to serve customers. It has literally no other reason for existing.
Perhaps I’m being naïve but stating that we are “customer focused” or “we put the customer first” seem just a little absurd in this context. If you are not putting the customer first then who is first?
That truly innovative product that R&D has just developed is worthless without customers to buy it. No matter how great your supply chain management process runs, if it’s not supplying customers it’s just a bunch of idle trucks and conveyer belts.
So why are organisations not more naturally customer focused? Many big (and small) corporations seem to spend most of their time ignoring customers and even actively doing the reverse of what customers really want when it’s customers that they are there to serve.
Breeding Employee Resentment
Perhaps the root of the issue is in that old cliché:
This job would be easy if it wasn’t for customers. [Tweet this Quote]
Customers make life difficult, to be sure. They want it in a different colour, they want it at a lower price, they want it delivered today, etc. There is no end to their demands.
Possibly, all of these demands build up a subtle but real resentment in employees. Rather than deal with the people they resent, customers, they focus on internal issues.
It’s true that processes, ideas, plans that are wholly internally focused and blissfully unaware of customers do appear to have clearer outcomes and easier goals. Those outcomes are satisfying in themselves but without a customer angle, don’t pay wages.
Some Do It Well – What Makes Them Different?
There are examples of companies that seem to really get that the customer is the centre: Zappos, Amazon, Southwest Airlines and Nordstrom. Each of these organisations is known the world over for their customer focus.
For me this raises two questions:
- What is different about these companies? Why is it that everyone in these companies understand that customers are so important?
- Why are they so rare? You would think that not having a focus on the customer would be more rare but it’s the reverse.
Zappos and Nordstrom’s customer focused nature is the stuff of legend. However, Southwest’s motto is “THE low-fare airline.”  and Amazon seem to be driven by operational efficiency. Neither of which appear to be innately customer centric goals but they are both undeniably customer focused.
Perhaps a single minded focus (any focus) is what makes these companies so customer centric. It’s not so much that they serve all customers, more that if you are the exact customer type that they serve, they will deliver relentlessly.
Customers self-select into these companies and they deliver perfectly to the customer expectation.
Are Management to Blame?
It’s easy to blame employees for not being customer centric but they are pretty much just playing by the rules dreamt up by management. If call centre management give consultants an average handle time goal and a bonus to meet it then you can be sure it will get met, regardless of the customer impact.
Sales staff targeted to close a certain number of sales will do so, even if they burn a stack of prospects in the process who will never again buy from the sales person’s employer.
So perhaps it is management’s failed ability to connect every single employee to customers that is the problem. Simplistic KPIs, while easy to measure and reward fail to capture the breath of the employee-customer connection needed.
At its heart it does seem to be this lack of connection for all employees to the customer that lies at the core of the issue. Southwest gets to the heart of things through a clear narrow but broad focus (“THE low-fare airline.”) against which all employees can measure their actions.
Trying to piecemeal the relationship through local KPIs (average handle time, sales targets, etc.) breaks the linkage and makes the customer a problem that stops you being successful. It is the customer’s fault that you missed your average handle time metric which raises the resentment level just a little bit at each interaction.
Broadening the linkage often makes it difficult to measure, e.g. how do you measure how well each individual employee delivered “THE low-fare airline”? However, it does seem at the heart of the issue.
What are your thoughts on this? How can we create closer, more symbiotic, linkages between employees and customers?
 Heath, Chip; Dan Heath (2008-09-04). Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck (p. 30). Random House. Kindle Edition