Thursday, 6 February 2014

Are your customers an alibi to do what you do?

In a hospital ward last week, as we watched what was going on with the CEO, a patient was left waiting in a bed outside the operating theatre, amongst other unoccupied beds. Two nurses walked past discussing with each other, found that the patient's bed was in the way of opening the door to where they wanted to go, moved the bed without a glance at the patient, and walked through the door without a break in their conversation. Definitely an awkward moment.

I have no doubt the nurses were discussing a professional matter, but therein lies the rub. Is your organization actually working to help customers with what they want to do, or are customers an opportunity to do what you do?

Do teachers have a plan for every child, taking into account that child's learning style (and we know now that children learn differently from one another) or do they have a plan to take this year's class through the imposed program? Does your sales team understand that customers have different things on their minds as they walk in to purchase, or do they believe that the best way to maintain quality is to make sure every customer follows the set process?

Customers, patients, students move in and out: now you see them (briefly), now you don't. Colleagues, bosses, staff specialists stay. You have to deal with them today, you'll have to deal with them tomorrow.

Your skills are your skills. You know what you can do, are told every day what you must do, have some inkling of what you should do, and often think about what you'd like to do. In this sense, every new customer is an opportunity to practice your art. Every new customer is an opportunity to play ball (or fight against) with your colleagues. Customers are too easily an excuse for us to do what we do.

I remember a great teacher who used to start every new group of students by asking them to share something about themselves the others didn't know - it was a very touching, surprising and intense moment. I know a CEO that starts every customer discussion by asking "what is specific about this customer?"

Taking customers as people requires far more flexibility than most processes offer. This is the promise (often seen as a threat) of big data and new players such as Google or Amazon. But technology won't solve the attitudinal problem.

"How are we stopping this specific customer from achieving what he or she wants to achieve?" is a straightforward question at the heart of creating a learning organization. We all learn every day, there is no doubt about that. But are we reinforcing our existing habits, or are we opening up to seeing others? Is a hospital a place to have a great career, or a place to look at every single patient's journey?

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