I was listening to NPR on my way to work today while one of the commentators interviewed a "leader" in a particular community. The commentator asked the leader of this community why people were attracted to his organizations. He said most of them were victims of one problem or another and he had the track record to help solve those problems.
It struck me that a leader of any organization would consider his constituents or customers "victims". Doesn't how you view your customer impact your perspective on those customers, your empathy and your ability to work with those customers? How do you think about your customers?
I think many of us in business never come in contact with an actual buying customer, which is really a shame. Too often we speak of our customers, or in my line of work our "users", and we are somewhat removed from any contact with those individuals or teams. That leads all of us to apply our thinking and our values to those individuals, rather than being able to understand who they are, and what they want.
Obviously it would be very difficult for every one in your organization to meet customers regularly, but to me it would make a lot of sense to meet a few ocassionally, just to put a human face on what otherwise becomes a faceless cypher. Working day after day in our orderly processes, the thing that upsets our processes most frequently and causes us the most "headaches" are our customers. It should be that our processes and the way we work are guided by our customers - we've become too insulated from the people we are trying to reach with our products and services.
Now, some organizations have addressed this using Voice of the Customer, or even giving the "customer" a name and a personality. I was in a meeting not long ago where everyone on the team understood that their primary target audience was women over 35. They decided to name the representational customer Jane, and gave her attributes. The entire discussion was - "Would Jane like this" and "Would Jane use this". I guess that's all well and good - takes you down a step or two in the right direction - but why not bring a couple of "Janes" into the process? Why not take your product or service to "Jane" and ask her to use it?
Can you name, actually name, a customer who uses your products? By that I don't mean the company name, I mean the actual individual who brushes his teeth with your toothbrush or writes his code using your editor. If not, why not? Who knows more about what they want and need than those customers? Otherwise, customers become a nameless, faceless mass upon which we thrust our beliefs, our convictions and transfer our needs.
So, are your customers a nameless, faceless void? Or do you have a bunch of "Janes" and "Toms" who drive your processes? How do you view and interact with your customers? Are they users, or worse, victims? Or can you say that you have a regular, honest dialog with your customers, and they with you?