Customers, schmustomers

John Porcaro's blog "Customer Schmustomers" provokes me to challenge the empty rhetoric of customer satisfaction and argue that too often it produces falseness and sycophany. Real satisfaction is not given by one person to another, but created between them.
Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

John Porcaro blogs on this. Prompted by Curt Rosengren he cites an article by Gallup:

Marketers are rediscovering that strong customer relationships are essential if companies want to avoid the downward spiral into commodity status that comes from competing on price alone. Throughout the halls of corporate America banners proclaim programs such as “Putting Customers First ” being more “Customer-Centric,” or “Becoming a Customer-Focused Organization.” These initiatives may be part of a culture change or a back-to-the-basics effort. However, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, published by the Institute of Social Research, only a handful of such programs succeed on a sustained basis…

For a company to truly put customers first, it must focus all its processes, systems, infrastructure, policies, and practices on that goal. The problem is, too many organizations are structured in ways that hinder achieving world-class levels of customer engagement

John comments

My favorite failure is that companies expect behavior that isn’t natural for the people they’ve hired. Can someone hired for their competitive tenacity, their cut-throat “win-at-all-costs” action-orientation, or their “logical prowess and smarts” be expected to be open to customer feedback, to solving customer issues, or adopting a true “customer focus?

It’s a good point, one I have seen reflected in many organisations I’ve worked with. The rhetoric is of customer satisfaction, but the reality is not.

Change the rhetoric

The solution may not be to change the reality alone. What may be needed is to change the rhetoric and acknowledge a deeper reality. Any organisation of any size has a multitude of stakeholders to “satisfy” and will always struggle to keep everyone happy. In the long run, customer satisfaction can only be achieved if employees are satisfied, and investors and other business partners too. I have seen companies fixated with customer service burn out because their staff become exhausted and disillusioned.

This “customer is king” stuff sucks. Sure, there are companies that need to pay a lot more attention to customers. But stating some idealised aim of customer delight is not the answer. What it tries to set up is a series of doting-parent – spoilt-child relationships that seem almost endemic in society.

I go on a lot about Easyjet (a European budget airline). They are a cheap no-frills operation. There’s a TV show here every week showing them warts and all. In fact, it’s mostly warts since that makes the best viewing. Every week we see irate customers berating the staff for various cock ups, sometimes within and sometimes outside the airline’s control.

Typically, a group of passengers on a much-delayed flight gather round some nervous Easyjet employee. A couple of ringleaders start ranting and raving, engaging in sarcasm and apparent outrage… others, caught to one side, admit to being philosophical. Or we see a passenger who has arrived too late for the flight demanding to be let on, as if the airline should revolve around them. You know what? I end up feeling the airline isn’t so bad, it’s the customers with their childish expectations that the world should revolve around them who need to sort themselves out.

And I think the airline knows what it’s doing here. It’s saying “hey, we don’t pretend to revolve around our customers, but we’re cheap and what you see is what you get. Fly with us and if things go wrong, don’t expect any big favours”. To me, that is a more adult basis for a relationship than the ludicrous nonsense that passed for airline marketing in the past. eg “We love to fly and it shows” and “You’re going to love us” Get real!

No, I’m not suggesting that crappy service is ok. But I for one don’t trust organisations that go on and on about “customers first” because it’s usually a half-truth. Or it’s at the expense of the staff. Take a look at the shitty working conditions of folks who work in many so-called “service industries” where the customer gets the polished marble and velvet wallpaper and the staff behind-the-scenes work in stygian gloom.

A perverse circle of sycophancy

Perhaps the worst thing about this whole “make-me-happy” approach is the amount of energy wasted because people don’t get challenged. A company that is sycophantic to customers will probably have sycophants for suppliers. David Maister (see this Fast Company article) reckons most consultants aren’t happy in their work and don’t like their clients. But I bet most are also pretending that they do. Then going to the pub and grumbling for an hour about their loathed client, before of course getting into a round of stories about the terrible customer service they’ve experienced somewhere.

A most ingenious paradox

I don’t say customer satisfaction is impossible, but it doesn’t come from a series of mechanistic b-school practices and satisfaction surveys. It does not, cannot, come from a fatuous mantra about delighting people. In fact, like most things to do with humans, it’s paradoxical.

Also, satisfaction is not something to be “given” from one person to another. Satisfaction is a mutual thing, it’s created in multiple little pieces of theatre that take place between people. I suspect that the people who are really good at customer service probably are pretty good at satisfying themselves… and yet aren’t self-satisfied.

Oh, and a learning frame might offer some insights. Installing Movable Type and learning to use it, and deal with comment spam, has been irritating and frustrating for me… but I’ve also enjoyed overcoming the obstacles and getting more sophisticated. So it’s actually been very satisfying – and that satisfaction is not manufactured and supplied by the Trotts, but has arisen from my interactions with the community of other users they’ve stimulated. I – and a lot of folks – get satisfaction from learning and learning does not happen if there isn’t some discomfort and challenge along the way.

There is no magic formula. (But I will say that Improv Games can teach us a lot since they are great for paradoxical learning).

(See also my blog on some work from Stanford on the volatile chemistry of trust a survey which shows some of the paradoxes of customer satisfaction.)

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