How to grow a culture that treats customers respectfully

We are embedded – thrown into and always living – in language.  The way that we see ourselves, others, the world at large is shaped by language:  the language that is spoken by leaders, managers, colleagues, friends, family and the media.

Language and culture are two faces of the same coin.  If we want our organisations to become customer focussed or even customer centred then the best place to start is not strategy, not CRM technology, not process redesign nor new metrics.  The place to start is the language that we use.

In the world of business, government, education and healthcare I have come across the following language used to describe the Customer: the market, target, conquest, opportunity, contact, detractor, promoter, advocate, punter, seat, patient …..  When it comes to the  people who work in the organisation, they are referred to as employees, resources, headcount, FTE and so forth.

This language dehumanises, it is the language of the engineer.  By being embedded in this language we strip our fellow human beings (customers, employees, suppliers..) of their humanity: the language makes it possible, even encourages us to treat them as objects – parts of the machinery.

What is our relationship to objects?  Objects are here to serve us and our needs – this is the relationship is it not?.  What do we do with objects?  Are we not always chasing after new objects.  Do we not neglect and often mistreat the objects that are no longer new?

It is this kind of language that calls into being attitudes and actions that:

  • leaves customers feeling misled, neglected, taken advantage of, mistreated; and
  • leads to demotivated employees who when they turn up in the morning for work are looking forward to only one thing – getting to the end of the day so that they can head home.

Imagine for a moment an organisation that speaks of Customers as family.  Our customers are our brothers and sisters.  Or perhaps our parents and grandparents.  Or our children. What attitudes and behaviour does this call into being.  What kinds of attitudes, behaviours and decisions does it rule out?  I helped design and provided the seed funding for a car servicing business that uses the language of family: which sees the customer as brother, sister, mother or father.  This is how this language impacts the business:

  • Car sales:  no car is sold to a customer that would not be sold to the owners mother, father, brother or sister;
  • Car repairs:  the level of care taken in repairing a customer’s care is the same as that which would be taken for the owner’s mother, father, brother or sister;
  • Car valeting:  the valeting is done to the same standard as that which would be done for the owner’s mother, father, brother or sister;
  • Employees: The people who work in the business are treated as family for example the owner goes and buys lunch for all of them and they eat together; and
  • Sales: the business has been in operation for just over 4 years and now 100% of the sales come from existing customers, referrals from existing customers or by word of mouth (reputation).

If the language of family is a bridge too far then how about using the language of tribe – the language of a club, a professional society, a community of interest.  For example I have noticed that solicitors treat other solicitors with courtesy that is born out of profound respect.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.