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Everyone's a Customer: The Importance of Empathy, Respect and Helpfulness

I increasingly see how a variety of roles in society might be viewed from a customer service (or customer care) perspective, and how all our interactions can be seen as manifestations of customer relationship management ... and how we all might be better off if more members of society adopted this view, especially those in authority roles, such as doctors, teachers, corporate executives and politicians.

Whenever I start focusing on something new -- buying a car, siring a child, or learning a skill or job -- I become keenly aware of examples all around me: suddenly, I see my make and model of car wherever I turn, the world seems filled with pregnant women, or the new skill or job seems universally applicable or useful.  I suspect this perspective shift is at work in the current context, as I seek to learn everything I can about sales, and so everyone seems like a potential customer ... and, actually, I don't think this is a bad thing.  In yet another series of examples of "When the student is ready, the teacher appears", I've been encountering all kinds of teachers who help me better understand the value of customer orientation.

Yesterday, I was listening to the audiobook version of "Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking" by Malcolm Gladwell.  In the first chapter, Gladwell describes research by John Gottman and his colleagues into specific affective factors that are highly correlated with successful and unsuccessful marriages (or, more precisely, marriages that last more than or less than 15 years ... I suppose "success" is a value judgment).  The research revealed that contempt and condescension are highly correlated with divorce.  Contempt and condescension is also predictive of another type of legal action: malpractice suits.  A doctor's relationships with his / her patients is a much more significant factor in predicting whether the doctor will be sued for malpractice than any other factor (even, surprisingly, the number of medical errors the doctor commits).  Doctors who spend more time with patients, who treat them with respect rather than condescension -- and yet make mistakes -- don't tend to get sued.  I'm not sure how much this trend benefits the patients, or society -- and I don't want to delve into the malpractice reform controversy (here) -- but I'd argue that this customer service orientation at least benefits the doctors.

Kathy Sierra consistently models a customer care orientation, both by writing her blog posts with her customers (readers) in mind, and by offering guidelines to help other bloggers to be more customer oriented.  She recently provided a Crash Course in Learning Theory in which she shared some of her insights about this orientation:

One formula (of many) for a successful blog is to create a "learning blog". A blog that shares what you know, to help others. Even--or especially--if that means giving away your "secrets". Teaching people to do what you do is one of the best ways we know to grow an audience--an audience of users you want to help.

Kathy goes on to teach by example, sharing her considerable insights and experiences into teaching: the importance of getting and keeping attention and interest, viewing learning as a process of co-creatiion, and relentlessly focusing on -- and making the benefits clear to -- the customer (er, I mean, student).  The notions of empathy, respect and offering meaningful benefits recur throughout many of her blog posts (e.g., on teaching and advertising), and I expect she would concur that a stronger customer care orientation on the part of teachers would be A Good Thing.

As I mentioned previously, Dan Fine espouses a rather comprehensive view of one's customers, including in that set a broad range of people with whom we regularly interact in a business context: vendors, employees, partners, media, investors or people who purchase your product or service.  The unifying theme is that you need to "sell" a compelling value proposition to all of these stakeholders. I was reflecting on this view during my recent equity negotiations with a potential partner ... and how important it is not only to treat all prospective customers with respect, but also to cultivate a relationship of mutual respect (as would also be the case with doctors and teachers).

Politicians are another group that sometimes appears to lack a customer care orientation.  As with doctors who are sued for malpractice, I wonder whether politicians such as Tom Delay would be in their current legal predicaments if they were more inclined toward empathy, respect and helpfulness.  Perhaps part of the problem is who they view as their customers ... and perhaps I have too narrow a view of who a politician's customers are ... or ought to be.

[Update, 2006-01-24: after further rumination, I'm adding two new paragraphs (directly below) that I don't think warrant a separate post.]

I admit to not being entirely clear about who my customers are.  The proactive display applications developed by Interrelativity are designed to facilitate networking ("interrelating") among people attending an event by showing content from attendees' online profiles on a large computer display when those people are nearby (creating "tickets to talk").  I don't expect that attendees themselves will pay extra -- directly -- for the enhanced networking opportunities, but rather that event hosts and/or sponsors would pay for our services, and I'm exploring other potential groups that might value some exposure on a proactive display.  Thus, there are different value propositions for different stakeholders, each with different costs and benefits, which adds complexity as well as potentially conflicting goals.

Having different groups of stakeholders may also be part of the customer orientation problems in the other examples listed above.  Doctors (in this country) tend to be paid primarily by insurance companies, rather than their patients ... and I don't get the sense that there is a strong tradition of empathy, respect and helpfulness in the relationships between medical professionals and insurance professionals.  Perhaps this lack of full, direct payment interferes with the perception of the patient as a customer on the part of some doctors.  Teachers often do not get paid directly by the customers they have the most interaction with (students), and in the case of K-12 public school teachers, they don't even get paid directly by another group of customers (the students' parents and guardians), and so the intermediating layers may similarly complicate the adoption of a customer care orientation -- by some teachers -- toward their students.  And, while we, the people, typically pay the salaries as well as vote for our elected officials, there is not a direct payment connection between most constituents and politicians.  Politicians have a broad array of people and groups who may offer them financial and other types of compensation -- with varying degrees of directness -- for their attention to specific interests ... and so it's hardly surprising that some politicians may have different ideas about their customer base: who they are really serving (and why).

In general, I think it's difficult to clearly distinguish customers and potential customers from people will never be -- or know -- any customers or potential customers ... which is a powerful motivation to always be a mensch.

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