What have I learned after 25+ years at the coalface: marketing, selling and serving customers

“You have been playing the game of business for 25+ years and most of that has been at the coal face – intimate contact with the customer.  In addition, as a customer you have had many encounters with many companies.  How would you sum that up?” That is the question that was posed to me recently.  As I grappled with that question two passages came to my mind that pretty much sum it up.  The first is a passage from EM Standing’s book Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work and the other is from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov.  Allow me share those with you starting with the latter one.

Book 2, Chapter 4 – A lady of little faith, The Brothers Karamazov

“I heard exactly the same thing, a long time ago to be sure, from a doctor,” the elder remarked. “He was then an old man, and unquestionably intelligent.  He spoke just as frankly as you, humorously, but with a sorrowful humour.

‘I love mankind,’ he said, ‘but I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long to eat his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose.  I become the enemy of the people the moment they touch me,’ he said, ‘On the other hand, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole.'”

Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work 

One day Dr. Montessori was called in to attend two small babies – twins – who were so near death’s door that their father had said, “Why trouble to get a doctor; they are already dead.” The parents were very poor and unable to afford either household help or nursing. On her arrival the young lady doctor took in the whole situation in a glance.  Taking off her coat, she lit the fire, sent the mother to bed, heated some water, bathed the two babies, “holding them in a special way,” prepared their food, and thus little by little, hour by hour, brought them back to life – servant, cook, nurse and doctor in one.

In later years when this same mother with her children met the Dottoressa in the street she would push them towards her saying, “Go and salute that lady, my dear, she is your real mother, not I: she gave you your life.”

Summing it up

Summing it up I’d say that in the vast majority of organisations ‘management’ talks a great story : about the customer; about brand values like quality, innovation, excellence, customer focus; And internal organisational values like teamwork, collaboration etc.   The talk is marvellous; I remember two CEO’s in particular who were great at that talk.

The issue for this majority of organisations is that the talk just does not translate to substantive interventions that create value for the customer, nor the people in the organisation that actually do the work that directly/indirectly impacts the customer in the form of the product and the customer experience.

Yet, this does not stop the talk.  The less substantive the change and/or the willingness to do what is necessary, the more the talk.  It is as if the urgency/degree of talk is a substitute for acting – of making changes that improve  the ‘workability’ and ‘performance’ of the organisation.

Looking into this I have become convinced that these organisations – the majority of organisations – lack faith.  They lack faith in their customers – that customers will reward them for doing the right thing by customers.  They lack faith in their people (management, employees, marketing, sales, customer service etc) to do what is necessary.  They lack faith in themselves – to effect personal changes and orchestrate/lead organisational changes.  So talking takes the place of acting. Which is why the passage (lady of little faith) from The Brothers Karamazov came to my mind.

Yet there are a small, very small, number of organisations where the people in the organisation get on with what needs to be done: to create value for customers; to engender good relationships between the various tribes in the organisation; to work collaboratively with suppliers and channel partners….

The people in these organisation are moved-touched-inspired by: the mission of their organisation; the quality of their working relationships – they actually like and respect each other; the thrill of creating a future worth creating; and the anticipation of taking on challenges worth taking on.  Which is why the passage from Maria Montessori:Her Life and Work came to my mind and which I shared with you.

What is your experience?