CUSTOMER SERVICE

Think of Your Customers as Employees

The Wired magazine founder offers a brain tickler for entrepreneurs by suggesting they involve customers more intimately in their businesses.

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As a small-business owner your goal is to make your customers happy. The tricky part is figuring out how to do that while turning a profit. Suggestions for ways to accomplish this feat have ranged from the practical--say, by providing them a smoothly functioning, reliable website--to the philosophical, like Steve Jobs's suggestion that customers don't know what they want and shouldn't be consulted. 

Now Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly is adding another idea of how to keep customers happy to the mix: Treat them like employees: In a brief but thought-provoking post on his blog, Kelly suggests you:

Imagine your customers as employees.

It is not a cheap trick to get the customer to do what employees used to do. It's a way to make a better world! I believe that everyone would make their own automobile if it was easy and painless. It's not. But customers at least want to be involved at some level in the creation of what they use--particularly complex things they use often. They can superficially be involved by visiting a factory and watching their car being made. Or they can conveniently order a customized list of options. Or, through network technology, they can be brought into the process at various points. Perhaps they send the car through the line, much as one follows a package through FedEx. Smart companies have finally figured out that the most accurate way to get customer information, such as a simple address, without error, is to have the customer type it themselves right from the first. The trick will be finding where the limits of involvement are. Customers are a lot harder to get rid of than employees! Managing intimate customers requires more grace and skill than managing staff. But these extended relationships are more powerful as well.

The opposite notion of treating employees as well and with as much loyalty as customers has been kicking around awhile and was espoused by Southwest Airlines founder Herbert D. Kelleher, among others. The case for appreciating staff the same way you do customers makes obvious human sense (if not always business sense) as people perform better when they feel appreciated, but the converse idea proposed by Kelly is less intuitive.  

Kelleher aside, employees are often treated terribly these days and there are scattered signs that consumers are growing antsy with having so many tasks once handled by employees offloaded onto them (i.e. scanning their own groceries, checking themselves in at the airport and planning their own travel). On the other hand, the idea that customers, trained by technology to demand choice, customization and control, would be sucked into a deeper relationship with a company if given more of a role in producing the end product they will eventually buy seems credible (not to mention the fact that customers might enjoy such a product more). The trick seems to be involving customers more without making them feel exploited. 

How would your customers respond if you handed them some of the responsibilities now handled by your employees?

Last updated: Dec 26, 2011

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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