Customer Service Theories: Intro and Part 1

For the better part of a decade, I have been providing and enabling my team to provide business-to-business customer service. I’ve noticed some things over the years; you can call them “laws,” but I find myself drawn to the word “theory” for a number of reasons. This is part one of a three-part series on customer service theories: it is a general theory of customers.

The Theory of Customers

I’ve written about this one before, most notably here. It goes like this: customers are your boss. Customers are the entities that pay you or your company in exchange for a product or service, (in recent decades the line between “product” and “service” has increasingly become more blurry, as it should). Your boss, be she manager or supervisor or whatever, has a similar relationship with you. She is in charge of your company or a certain aspect of your company, and she has hired or inherited you to help execute that function. She approves and determines your salary, and uses your work to help deliver some function or product to the rest of the company. In other words, just like a customer, she pays you for your service.

What’s important about this idea is how it goes against the pyramid structures you have in your head when you think about organizations and customers. You imagine a triangle, with executives at the top doing their strategizing, managers in the middle doing their planning, and technicians, associates, specialists, and others at the bottom, carrying out the daily activities and transactions that keep the business running.

You probably imagine that organization’s customer as being another triangle underneath or to the side of it. This seems like a harmless mental image, but companies do all too often suffer from the attitude of thinking they are “above” their customers. Perhaps it comes from being “up” the supply chain from your customer?

When we fully embrace the concept of seeing our customers as our bosses and as our employers, we will see those triangles differently. If our customers pay our organization in exchange for the good or service that we provide, then technically, their pyramid should be on top of ours! Think about it like this: in your company, money flows down from the top: the CEO pays your boss’s boss, your boss’s boss pays your boss, she pays you, etc. Services flow up from the bottom: your labor creates sales for your region, your boss’s labor creates global sales, her boss’s labor creates spot-on operations for the entire company, and the CEO’s labor produces good quality products delivered on time to customers. From there, the flow keeps going: money flows down to your CEO from customers, and your company’s products and services flow right back up to your customer. Money flows one way, goods and services flow the other… customers are your CEO’s jefe.

That is a technical take on it, but it crystalizes the theory. One could theoretically map out our entire economy with money flowing in one direction and goods and services flowing in the other. A less technical perspective on the same theory is well summarized by Dr. Price Pritchett in his book Service Excellence:

Without paying customers, nobody has a job. The organization will shrink, wither, and eventually die unless there are people willing to pay for what you do. Customers vote daily on how well you do your job, and they vote with their money. If your competitors serve the paying customers better, you lose the vote.