The Wrong Customer and the Real Customer

How is it that the same organizations consistently get ranked as the “worst companies” by consumers? How come some businesses never seem to ‘get’ their customer but still exist? The answer is that they are focused on the wrong customer. The surprising part is that this is pretty easy to do.

University website venn diagram


Who Do We Serve?

The person that pays the bills of course. But, in many cases, this person is not the same as the paying consumer that gives their money to a brand in exchange for a service. Instead, the person that pays the bills is the person directly above the employee and the two or three people above that. Consider this: A guy works in the marketing department of a large organization that sells furniture. He crafts ads and writes copy in his office at headquarters. Occasionally, he visits stores for photo shoots or to discuss new campaigns.  During one of these visits, a customer approaches him and asks, “Do you work here?” What to do? Let’s say he decides to help the customer as best he can, while pointing out that he’s not a retail associate but, nonetheless, he wants the customer to be satisfied. Well, that’s just great, and that is pretty much what every executive would advise and what the training manuals would say to do. And that is exactly what most employees will not do (including the training manual authors and executives). The reason is that it won’t count. Our hapless marketing department guy can serve the customer until the cows come home but it won’t affect his situation one bit unless his boss notices. And, even so, the marketing department’s annual employee evaluation form doesn’t even include a section for customer service.  Even if it did, it would be focused on serving the “internal customer”. Stakeholders trump consumers in almost every corporate project.

Of course this isn’t limited to retail brands either. Distance from The Real Customer is relative to the employee’s passion for serving that customer.  Large organizations are even more at risk for this sort of employee disassociation than smaller ones.  Many companies also have to focus on keeping investors happy. In these scenarios, who is being served? It begins at the top. If the very highest levels of leadership in the organization are beholden to share owners, banks or anyone but The Real Customer, why would the employees under him focus their attention differently? Not that anyone in the business environment would ever say this aloud… that would be corporate sacrilege.

Bonus Success vs. Business Success

So, what to do when the boss suggests we serve a stale bun with the burger, or hide that bad trade on the books until next quarter or smudge the budget numbers so they tell a better story or create a website based on ego instead of service? Bonus or business, who wins? Something to remember anyway the next time you are on the consumer side of the fence and you’re treated by an employee as though you don’t matter.  The reason they are treating you that way is because, in their world, you really don’t matter. Or, rather, you matter, but you matter a lot less than the guy that signs the pay check.

The needs of the boss should serve the wants of the consumer at every level in the organization.  Lasting businesses are built by groups of employees with a passionate focus on The Real Customer and the consumer’s experience with your brand. Promotions and bonuses are built by groups of employees with a passionate focus on gaining the boss’s approval. Are these values aligned in your organization?

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