What About the Customer?

July 28, 2022
  • Barry Kirk
    Principal at Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute

Even the most well-intentioned of businesses – those that focus on “relationship” and a “customer-centric” culture – can find themselves repeatedly defaulting to a highly transactional approach to engaging with their customers.

Executives see customers as a means to a financial end, marketers reduce them to spend-based segments, and customer service teams approach them as a challenge to overcome.

Similarly, employees are often just seen as assets, numbers on a paper. Treated in the same way as the supply chain. Both are expenses to be reduced in tighter times to better the numbers and satisfy shareholders.

It's simply the way we've been taught to think in the business world. In either instance, neither employees nor customers are seen as what they actually are – people.

Our CEO, Bob Chapman, was well into his career when he had an epiphany: Every employee in every company is someone’s precious child.

This realization – that employees are people first – started Bob on a journey to dig deep into the toxic impact modern work culture was having on individuals, families and society as a whole. He saw that business leaders – himself included – had been taught to treat employees like resources to be managed in service of a company’s financial success. He saw workers experiencing a "poverty of dignity" in the workplace.

As you read in the many stories on this blog or in Bob’s book, Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Treating Your People Like Family, Bob envisioned the possibility for a different world, one where businesses could become better stewards of people’s lives. He saw a future where companies would see that everybody matters.

As Bob has often said, “Business could be the most powerful force for good in the world if we simply had the skills and the courage to care for the people that we have the privilege of leading.”

Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute was formed by Bob Chapman and Barry-Wehmiller to help businesses do the very hard work of transforming themselves into Truly Human organizations. We help companies develop the Truly Human potential within their organization: selecting the right talent, equipping leaders to succeed, and building cultures where teams can thrive.

But there’s another part of business and corporate cultures we’re working to change. It’s the answer to  one key question that has often remained unanswered: What about customers?

Most of the work to date in what we would call the Truly Human movement has focused on the experiences of leaders and employees. But the approach need not be limited to those two groups. For the Truly Human shift in mindset and behavior to realize its full potential, leaders need to reach beyond the team members inside your business to recognize that customers are in your span of care, too.  Everyone is someone’s precious child. Inside and outside the business, people have to matter.

I’ve spent 20 years as a practitioner of the art of loyalty marketing and customer experience design, trying to help organizations achieve growth by building deep and authentic customer connection. I’ve seen many trends come and go. But, for me, one thing is constant. I’ve always encouraged the businesses that I’ve worked with to embrace one fundamental truth: customers are human beings first.

And now there’s a newer second truth we need to wrestle with: for at least the last decade, customers have been gaining significantly more power in their relationships with businesses. This shift has been driven by increasing choice, expanding global production, and the availability of massive amounts of online data to inform buying decisions. As a result, brand loyalty has been on a decline. Customers have higher expectations that must be met to earn their trust and their loyalty.

The result of this shift has been that a business' financial success now requires delivering on customer expectations in one critical area - your customer experience.  According to a 2020 Salesforce.com study, the majority of US consumers - more than 75% - now rank their experience with a business as equal in importance to the products or services offered.

This should not be a surprise. The experience you offer becomes the stories customers tell that help build and reinforce a brand. These moments can create strong memories that influence a customer’s decision to remember the brand, to purchase again, and to vouch for the brand to friends - or, to do the opposite.

For too long, though, businesses have taken a purely economic approach to this challenge. They have sought to incentivize customer loyalty solely through financial benefits like discounts or redeemable points. They have taken this approach on the assumption that customers operate from the same wholly rational mindset the business itself aspires to.

This approach will always underperform because the results are unsustainable without constant (and costly) reinforcement.

In reality, human beings are always more than rational in their decision making. While economics play a factor, people are also guided by their emotions, their relationships, and the context in which a given decision is being made. And emotional factors generally influence our choices more than rational ones.

This is why loyal customers often will pay a premium for a brand, rather than insist on a discount.

For some leaders this may sound contradictory to their understanding of the market (and people!), but it is literally what drives loyalty to some of the market's most iconic brands including Apple, Starbucks and Whole Foods.

Companies have traditionally approached customers as logic-driven, coin-operated machines. But the new realities of today’s market – and our commitment to Truly Human Leadership – demands that we reframe our thinking. We can be more effective at earning customers’ loyalty and validating their trust, at lesser expense, if we start by seeing customers as being in our span of care. And that understanding should lead us to consider:

  • What would change if you truly viewed your customers as within your span of care versus as “someone who buys from us”? Where are the “caring moments” in their customer journey? Where could you build in more?
  • How could you recognize that you value a customer without resorting to a financial incentive? How can you connect in a more human way and with more human language?
  • How could you create a surprising, positive moment that the customer might be tempted to capture and share as a unique personal experience? We call this "selfie-value." It could be something a customer would be moved to share on social media or later with someone face-to-face about how you took great care of them. For example, an airline giving a loyal customer a last minute upgrade so they can sit next to their child on a flight.

At Chapman & Co. and Barry-Wehmiller – as well as any Truly Human company – we treat our people well because it’s the right thing to do. We hope that those within our span of care feel fulfilled and valued because of their time with us and go out in the world and treat their friends and their family well and be good members of their communities.

Customers are people too! They are also within our spans of care and we strive to treat them as they deserve to be treated. To listen, to be empathetic to their struggles and to have a mindset of service.

As Bob Chapman has said, “We believe that an organization that is focused on earning the trust of our customers and that is focused on validating that trust will be a value-creating organization like no other!”

There’s a bigger power that lies in treating your customers as people, not revenue targets or revenue goals or the means by which to increase your share price. They’re an integral part of your business and deserve your care. 

Do you truly have the courage to care about your customers or just their wallets? Is it about what they can do for you or also about what you can do for them?

Thinking about your customers in a Truly Human manner could be the one thing that brings your business true success.


Barry Kirk currently serves as a Principal Consultant for Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute, where he supports brands in adopting a Truly Human loyalty approach to achieving growth through deep and authentic customer connection. You can download a special Customer Loyalty Playbook with more in-depth insight here. You can also register to attend a virtual conversation Aug. 18 with Barry on building customer loyalty here.

Related Posts

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Podcast: Bob Burg, The Go-Giver
Brent Stewart / Feb 25, 2021
Podcast: Customers Are People Too!
Bob Chapman / Mar 17, 2022
Killing it with Customer Care

Need help in applying principles of Truly Human Leadership in your organization? Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute is Barry-Wehmiller's leadership consulting firm that partners with other companies to create strategic visions, engage employees, improve corporate culture and develop outstanding leaders through leadership training, assessments and workshops.

Find out more at ccoleadership.com