Friday, April 23, 2010

Love Thy Customer

I'm perpetually mystified by people's hatred of their customers. And let me preface this by saying that this is an organizational analogy, and that my company seems to adore their customers. But, a customer is many things. A customer is your family, eating the dinner you prepared. A customer is your boss, accepting your work product. A customer is anyone who takes what you produce.

You can't hate your customer. If they didn't exist, you wouldn't be producing. Perhaps it seems like a boon - but most of us prefer to be gainfully employed or occupied, so we'd rather actually have a customer than not. I've been in situations when there were no customers. It isn't pretty. Customers pay the bills. Customers provide a goal.

But, the problem is, customers are fickle. They have demands. They get disappointed. They set rules and have conditions. They often make you bend over backwards, making mac and cheese instead of roast chicken, or asking for powerpoint instead of word. You get annoyed because they don't see the brilliance in your beet-reduction-sauce. You get annoyed because they deleted your carefully worded turn of phrase. You get annoyed because they don't like what you produce.

Nine times out of ten, they don't pick at your product just to pick. They genuinely had a different need or yen or desire that was left unmet. Maybe you simply didn't have information on their having eaten a burger for lunch, and thus wanted a lighter dinner. Maybe you did know that execs only consume bullet points, and obstinately wrote a novel instead. Either way, the product you created didn't meet the need.

Which means, you didn't build the right product. Which sucks, but it is true. You have no choice but to accept it. You can't convince them that they want more steak today. They don't. And they'll never read your novel on competitive strategy. Go fix it.

Meanwhile, there seems to be resentment the other way as well. They want more. More dinner. Dessert. Snacks. That all represents more work. Work you don't want to do, of course. But they are your customer. They want more, you give them more.

All you can do is optimize what you create. Try to build a balanced, satisfying meal that meets their needs, and hope that their request for an equally satisfying dessert is something you can deliver. The more time you waste writing novels they wont read, the more frustrated you'll become. Give them what they want, as much as they want - and thank them for their business.

The customer - this individual customer - may not always be right. But, as a collective, the customers ARE always right. Because without them, there's no point to you.

1 comment:

Capt. BS said...

There isn't anything wrong with a customer having demands, finding faults with your products and services, and expressing dissatisfaction. In my experience, what usually causes resentment and frustration (which over time may degrade into outright hatred) is when customers take the entitlement implied by such cliches as "the customer is always right" and run with it all the way to the bank, without any regard to the interests and efforts of the product/service provider.

Imagine a restaurant patron who orders a steak cooked medium-well, and after receiving one made just so by any reasonable measure, sends it back to the kitchen, complaining that it was overdone. An inconvenience for the kitchen, to be sure, but as an isolated incident, it isn't beyond the realm of reasonable accommodation. Now imagine that, after receiving a second steak (along with a complimentary dessert and a personal apology from the owner, as a gesture of goodwill), the customer demands that half the price of the steak be deducted from the bill, citing the inconvenience. Might the owner of this restaurant be justified in feeling a little resentful that his/her good-faith efforts to placate and satisfy the customer's needs were answered with an attempt to further leverage the situation to the customer's advantage? And how would the kitchen staff feel the next time they saw this customer sit down to dinner?

Perhaps my experience has been tainted by a disproportionate number of overly-entitled customers, but I've reached the conclusion that a healthy, productive customer relationship is not one of master-servant but a partnership from which both sides stand to benefit, and in which both sides put forth (and mutually recognize) a good faith effort to hold up their side of the bargain. In this case, "good faith" most plainly means recognizing that (a) the customer expects to receive the goods/services for which s/he is paying, as described; and (b) the product/service provider is operating a business that seeks to profit from offering said goods/services, incurs expenses in the delivery process, and expects to be compensated accordingly.

The difficulty, of course, is that the two sides often differ in their understanding of the requirements and assumptions underlying the deliverables, and this often leads to differing assessments of the end product. This is an unavoidable fact of doing business. Rather than jumping to the conclusion that one side is trying to "screw" the other, each party should trust that the other is putting forth their best effort to reach a mutually beneficial outcome (which, I would hope, is the reason why there was an agreement in the first place). Differences in opinion are allowed; uncompromising demands are not. In our restaurant example, the owner should offer the dissatisfied patron a new steak and a free dessert; the patron should either accept the them and pay the bill in full (and perhaps be a little more specific about what "medium-well" means to them when ordering next time), or refuse them, pay for the other items, and leave.

None of this is meant to excuse poor service, shoddy products, and lazy or entitled vendors. All I'm suggesting is a small qualification of the phrase: "The customer is always right, but the moment they stop paying the bill, they're no longer the customer."