One of my favorite Dilbert strips starts with the clueless CEO admitting he doesn’t know where the company gets its money. “I think it comes from derivatives or offshore accounts or maybe goodwill,” he hazards.

“Or maybe customers give us money,” Dilbert deadpans. “I hope not,” replies the boss. “I don’t like to feel beholden.”

Yet that’s the way it works for most of us: customers give us money. Here are a few clues as to what good, healthy beholden-ness looks like.

Give customers what they want, and be clear about it. Most business put a lot of effort into designing their services and products, and we’re no exception. The problem is that those plans can become round holes into which a company can be tempted to pound every customer, even the square pegs. In-N-Out Burgers famously sticks to one thing – burgers – and aims to do it well. No fish sandwiches, chicken, or vegan patties, but everyone knows it, and the company doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It’s a round hole for round pegs who like it that way.

Amazon.com, on the other hand originally sold books but now sells, well, everything. It’s darn near impossible to think of a legal non-breathing product you can’t get on Amazon; that’s what their customers expect, and that’s what they get.

Do your best even if you can’t control everything. My grandchild’s kindergarten teacher had her hands full. I suspect most of them do, but among her nearly 30 students were a number of tough cases that interrupted, hit, wandered, and in at least one case, hid under tables and cried. My guess is that this group was her “reward” for a long and caring career, but while she may not call them customers, she clearly cared for every sniveling one of them. She tirelessly recruited classroom volunteers, worked one-on-one as much as humanly possible, developed individual learning and behavior plans, and consulted with parents – some of whom didn’t want to hear it. But some did, and the children were served as well as possible under tough circumstances.

Listen. Find out what your customers actually want, and it’s not a bad idea to do it before you decide what you’re going to sell. We have helped many clients bring new products to market, usually with the benefit of research into consumer desires. We partner with firms who do “qualitative” market research, things like taste tests, in-home trials, and other ways to get feedback based on the actual use of a product. The Morrison team then designs “quantitative” testing that can get survey responses from most demographic groups (e.g., location, income, gender, age, ethnicity, and more). Many times a “good idea” goes down in flames in these tests while a “marginal idea” may catch fire. This kind of information can be sobering, but your customers will “speak” with their dollars sooner or later, so you might as well listen before you sink in time, energy, and money that you can’t get back.

Bend. There are times to stand firm, but when it comes to customer satisfaction, it can be better to bend. Costco is famous for this; so are cellular providers, but not in a good way. I recently upgraded my phone, which I was unable to sync with my calendar. We have ten other people here who do that easily, and my “obsolete” phone had no problem. After over two hours in the store and an hour and a half on the phone with customer support, they decided it must be Microsoft’s fault.

Fortunately, we contacted our account rep with the wireless provider who then intervened, because I was pretty sure it wasn’t Mircosoft’s fault since it wasn’t their phone or software.

Conversely, a valued longtime client once sincerely felt that our estimate to develop a forecasting model was too high. They were facing a hard deadline and, unable to concur on a time estimate, we told them we would simply get the project done and that they could pay us what they thought it was worth afterward – no questions asked. We did, and they agreed the final product was worth the time incurred, which was almost exactly the amount estimated. But if they had disagreed we’d have kept our word – and our business relationship.

Companies are in business for a lot of reasons, and money is always one of them. Like Dilbert said - it comes from customers – happy customers. The team at Morrison can help you achieve this in many aspects of your business and has resources for many others. Let us know how we might help.

About the Author
Brent Morrison is the founding principal at Morrison. To get in touch with Brent, please find contact information for Morrison here.


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