It is not done with malice or intent, but some companies seem to treat customers as impersonal objects while others seem to treat them as family. Some luxury automobile companies have mastered the art of developing personal relationships with their customers. As an example, although the employees do not know your names and probably have never seen you before, customers quickly develop the same sense of belonging when entering an Apple retail store. Unfortunately, we often experience the totally opposite when interacting with personnel from other organizations.
Independent of official statements and programs, the relationship between customers and the company is highly personal. As discussed in the article in this series “Customers are Always Testing,” every interaction with a customer is a test. A simple inadvertent misstatement or act by anyone within the organization can have a long-lasting negative impact on the customer. It is imperative that everyone, whether they have direct customer interaction or not, be aware of the risk of damaging a customer relationship. Over thirty years ago, I was browsing through a Hi-Fi-stereo retail store while my wife was at the next store shopping. A salesman walked up to me and said, “Hey buddy, are you just dreaming?” I looked at him, turned my back, walked out of the store, and never went back. The fact was that every component in my elaborate home stereo system was of higher quality and provided better performance than any equivalent component in the store. The salesman was obviously very proud of his products but had little use in thinking of me as his customer.
One simple method to avoid this issue is to point out the danger of stating the title of this article: Our Product, THE Customer. It is natural for employees to personalize the product or service that they are providing, referring to it as “our” product. Since only a small percentage of any company’s staff has direct involvement with customers, it is easy to impersonalize them and refer to them as a group with the term “the customer.” By doing so, it is easy to become insensitive to them as individuals.
The concept of personalization is fundamental to Principle Four of this series, Delight Each Customer. Once again the term “the” as in “the customer” is replaced with “each” to emphasize the importance of personal interaction. The farther away an employee is from actual customer interaction, the more likely it is for them to not think of the customer as a person. Individuals in purchasing, manufacturing, shipping, receiving, or finance may never interact with the customer making the development of a personal relationship difficult. Unfortunately, customer service personnel with their near constant interactions with customers who are experiencing issues with the company’s product or service may develop negative feelings about the customer and lose sensitivity to them as individuals. With the degraded level of customer service that has occurred in recent years, customers may be predisposed to begin customer service interactions expecting the worst. That attitude and the associated negative expectation can quickly be transferred to the well-meaning customer service representative. Negative expectations usually result in negative results. Or, said another way, if you look for the worst, you are seldom disappointed.
It seems that negative attitudes develop, grow, and spread far more rapidly than positive attitudes and feelings. Everyone in the organization needs to be aware of the negative attitude slippery slope that can occur and permeate an organization. By consistently replacing “the” with either “our” or “each” when referring to customers is an excellent method of combating the impersonal problem that can develop and spread throughout an organization. To have any lasting impact, this concept cannot be implemented as a special program. Instead, it needs to be woven into the fabric of the entire organization and become part of the company’s culture.