Customers are Not the Enemy, Right?

This is a larger story I’m crafting out of one little example.

For years I’ve been running into this barrier: wanting to improve customer experience for an organisation that doesn’t. For whatever reason, many businesses refuses to empathise with it’s customers at some point.

A great expereince can only be provided by a business that really KNOWS what it’s about, one that can focus on what’s important. Otherwise, the purpose of a business can be mistaken for milking dollars from humans in any way possible, something that leads to a scattered, less effective expereince. Of course, the world is full of these.

The inspiration behind this article is the local chapter of the global coffee retail giant you-know-who. They seem to have mistaken themselves for a money milking organisation in some respects. Sure, provide things that coffee-lovers like, but not at the expense of the core experience. Merchandising is seriously getting in the way of drinking coffee in this particular location. Not that you’d expect an organisation to act against their financial interests – you’d just expect a more planned, integrated approach to realising those interests. I wouldn’t expect so much from them except I’ve worked for them and I know they try to install a customer-oriented perspective in their staff.

Before getting into it, let me talk about time.

In a business like a cofee shop, time should be counted as the cumulative experience of time by customers. So if their are twenty people in your shop for five minutes, that five minutes is really by twenty – because it’s the customer’s persoective that really matters. If your shop is malfunctioning when a hundred people are in your shop for five minutes, then your shop has been malfunctioning for five hundred minutes. Which makes your malfunctioning shop that much more of a problem because it’s a much larger percentage of the overall time than it appears to be from the perspective of the staff.

But they fall short from there. The store in question is a difficult one – not very large and quite busy at times. The issue is a large merchandise structure in the middle of the shop, which makes it difficult to move around without saying excuse me a hundred times. Just being in the shop is difficult – and if you consider the merchandsing thing optional, unncessarily so.

Also, in-between this monument and the counter gets placed a little bargain bin, about one-and-a-half fet high, with a chalk written sign propped up against it, sticking outwards into the space where people have to walk, under the counter. The reason for the sign sticking out and not leaning against the counter is of course so more people can see it. Having to be aware of this obstacle in the least navigable part of the store, is bad enough without the fact it gets kicked over a thousand times a day. This apparently doesn’t matter, because it can just be picked up again. But it does matter, because your average customer will feel sorry and/or embarassed for having kicked down a sign.

The most common mistake for businesses that have lost sight of their purpose is to focus instead on squeezing a few extra dollars out of people. Of course the experience is eroded: the cause of the erosion is rooted in the fact the business no longer cares.

There are clear solutions to these problems in this particular shop, but the soutions don’t matter because the problems aren’t recognised. The management is barked these orders to sell shit. The staff who place the bargain bin don’t have to experience the crappy results. All because the important question isn’t being asked: how can we make our core expereince better? The core expereinces? Sitting down for a coffee, or grabbing one ont the go.

Sure, as an organisation spreads out, it must be easy to add things that feel important to the mission. But as the additions take on lives of their own, it must then be hard to notice when they stop being useful additions and start eroding what you had to start off with, the special something that made the whole shebang possible.

And for a super large organisation with a good brand name, there’s probably going to be significant lag between eroding that experience and eroding the brand name. Once it’s eroded though, it’ll be too late. Even fixing the core issues won’t repair the brand in time. Unless you have Steve Jobs to come and draw diagrams.. but how many companies have at their heart someone who really cares, and who the public respects?

“The customer is actually an enemy which you simply conquer by being nice. A ‘good customer experience’ is a topically applied lubricant making it easier for you to slide your dirty fingers into their purse.” It’s a paradigm and like all paradigms it’s invisible.

As a new idea takes hold, and people get used to higher standards, your shabby efforts to get people’s money will be on display. We’re heading into an era where only perfect customer expereince is acceptable. No matter how large an organisation, the importance of peope’s experience, inside and outside, has to be upheld as sacred.

The new idea will be established by organisations that actually care about what they do and remind themselves of that everyday. Because they care, they’re focussed on how people experience them and their product. They don’t want to drop the ball.

Of course the world is full of large corporations that hire people who simply couldn’t be expected to care. Fair enough, most organisations hardly provide incentive for people to care. Even if their employees did care, they’re not empowered to suggest and make change that favours their customers. The reverse is important. Care, and spread that care throughout the whole organisation. And to care, you need to know what you’re caring about. You can care about everyone all the time in a general sort of way, but if you want to do something right, care about that.

Oh the fine line between being a designer and a critic. I’ve always struggled with providing constructive criticism. It’s much easier to hurl pointers from the sideline. So I have to acknowledge, I still like my local chapter of global-coffee-giant because of the people who work there. Its just a shame that maybe in ten, twenty or a hundred years, someone else will get you a super convenient cuppa with more style and heart. I guess at that time the super nice people’s great grandchildren will work their while they go to college.

Posted on July 8, 2014, modified September 20, 2015.