Comfort is your real product; your character is where it comes from
The entertainment industry tends to portray people in business as greedy, selfish jerks. I spent a number of years in that industry, and I can understand why they think that way. Most of the people in power in that particular industry really are greedy and selfish.
Any industry that requires you to be thinking of yourself 24/7 tends to attract a certain type of person. I decided to leave show business because I knew that if I stayed in it, I would be ruining my chances of being the kind of person I wanted to be.
But the "jerk quotient" can also increase as companies grow. I’ve worked with hundreds of CEOs, entrepreneurs and other managers running companies of all sizes. There's no question that the bigger the company gets, the greater the possibility that it will be filled with jerks, unless the founder is absolutely devoted to customers and employees.
As customers, we recognize those customer-centric companies easily; they stand out in their industries. Zappos, Southwest, FedEx, and Amazon come to mind. They provide something to their customers that very few companies provide: Comfort.
It doesn’t really matter what they’re selling - shoes, flights, package delivery, or, in the case of Amazon, just about everything. What matters is that the company’s leaders actually care about their customers, and their customers can feel it. They are comfortable dealing with the company. Each successful interaction raises their comfort level further. In return, they do everything they can to reward that company with their business.
You can’t fake caring, even though it is common practice to try. Politicians are the best at it; they promise the moon, ultimately deliver a rotten little piece of cheese, and try to string you along until the next election.
As companies grow into the billions, the employees congratulate themselves that they work for such a big, important company. They think of themselves as big and important because of the reaction they get when they say to others, “I work for [VeryBigCompany].” While I have met some nice people inside Very Big Companies, because of the bragging factor, these large organizations tend to fill up with paper-pushing, back-stabbing people, endlessly holding pointless meetings. They slowly bleed the company to death.
Why does this happen?
Because most of the people who work there never, ever come in regular contact with real, live customers. They live in a customer-free world, where their salary and the work they do is in no way connected to real customers.
It is easy for them to assume that they are smarter than customers, because they haven’t heard a real customer talk about how bad the company’s products and behavior are. They also haven’t personally experienced how smart their own customers are.
Even if they did hear customers describe their disappointment, they could easily blame it on someone else. “Oh, that’s just because the guy who heads up customer service is a jerk,” they can say. “Not my department, don’t look at me.”
The entrepreneur who starts a company can’t play the avoidance game. If the customer isn’t happy, the entrepreneur has no one else to blame. In order to survive, the entrepreneur must find a way to make it right. This is more true than ever, now that “other customers” are the main source of information in the business world. You can no longer treat customers like dirt and expect it to remain a secret.
As the company grows, entrepreneurs start to delegate what they used to do themselves. They become more and more isolated from their customers. And, the employees working directly with customers will make sure that any discomfort on the part of the customer will not make its way to the boss. They try to keep it a secret. When they do report to the boss about a problem, it’s all watered down, so they don’t look bad. The boss never knows just how big the problem is or was.
But didn’t I just say that you can’t treat customers like dirt and expect it to remain a secret? Yes. Sooner rather than later, a customer will complain online. But the boss will be encouraged by his direct reports to see this as an isolated incident, the ravings of a “difficult customer” who doesn’t reflect the norm. And the boss, who has plenty to do, and who trusts the people who have been hired, will be inclined to see it the way they present it to him. He’s got so many other things to take care of, things that seem more pressing, that he lets it go.
Thus begins the separation between the customer’s comfort and the boss’ character. Entrepreneurs who start their own companies tend to do so because they have recognized a problem they can solve or a need/desire they can satisfy. Sure, they get excited about the prospect of making money, but they are also excited about how their product or service can help others. This is the mark they want to make on the world. They want their customers to be comfortable with their product or service, their people, their processes, and their policies. They know that this is where success will come from. But their increasing isolation from real customers makes this more and more difficult.
As I help CEOs and entrepreneurs take their companies to the next revenue level, I always start by interviewing real customers and uncovering all those secrets that the boss has been insulated from. I expose the boss to the customer’s reality. Once he knows what is really going on, the boss can start making the right decisions.
Instead of seeing a complaint as an isolated incident, the boss will realize that the complaint is just the tip of an iceberg - that the problem occurs frequently. When I interview customers, even just 5 - 10 customers, they all mention the “uncomfortable” aspects of the company, and they all agree on what those issues are - even though they may have never talked to each other. They are all speaking from their own experience, and their experiences are the same. If there is a jerk running customer service, they’ll say that their experience with customer service is always disappointing. If your employee heading up quality control lets certain things slip by, they’ll say that the product it is unreliable.
You can’t ensure that your customers are comfortable doing business with your company if you aren’t talking to them yourself on a regular basis. You also need to have an experienced interviewer call them periodically, because they won’t tell you what they will tell a professional third party interviewer. Customers won’t want to hurt your feelings, nor do they want to be seen as a “problem customer,” so even they will water down what they say, when you ask them directly. If the interviewer also assures them that their comments will be passed on without attribution (and keeps that promise), they will really open up.
I have come to see “character” as a healthy combination of persistence, careful analysis, and humility. It takes good character to admit that our customers have something to teach us about their comfort, and that if we assume we are smarter, that we know better, we will ultimately poison our own businesses from within.
Have you talked to your own customers lately? Do you spend at least 25% of your time with customers? Have you had a professional interviewer call them and ask them about their experiences with your company/products/services and how you could improve? If not, you are becoming dangerously separated from their reality.
Given that their reality drives your revenue, you’ll want to change this in 2013.