List member René wrote in with an interesting take on last week’s questions about customer service (shared with permission, emphasis added):

"… I am a staff leader, and in a way, I think of our staff as my customers as well. They need my attention, expertise, encouragement, and acknowledgment, just like our members do … I am also anticipating and responding to the needs of my bosses … I serve all these groups, and think there is probably some value in thinking about all of them as my customers.”

This got me thinking more about the meaning of the word “customer”.

Rather than define customers as people who pay for some product or service, we could think of them as people who we want to help succeed in some way. After all, people aren't really buying a product or service — they're buying what the outcome the product or service provides.

  • People don't buy movie tickets — they buy a reprieve from a stressful week or a chance to spend time with someone they care about.
  • People don't pay for tuition — they buy some assurance of their child's future success.
  • People don't buy a haircut — they buy the confidence to pull off a presentation to their boss.
  • People don't buy a consultation with a doctor — they buy a chance to return to a regular, healthy life.

Likewise, we don't drive to the office so we can go to work. We work to attain a comfortable lifestyle, provide for our families, and help others succeed. 

So it makes sense that René would define her bosses and peers as customers. They're people who we want to see succeed.

And that reminds me of a mistake I used to make when working with clients.

When I would start a client engagement, I'd spend a lot of time talking to the business owner, the C-Whatever-O, the Directors of This and That … I rarely got around to talking with the client’s customers or the support staff who interacted with the client's customers every day.

Not speaking with customer service staff led me to develop products that would fail to meet user needs in some way, or I’d end up spending a bunch of time working through some problem that could have been quickly resolved by talking with customers and customer service staff.

I didn’t understand that customer service staff held the keys to much of the information I needed. I didn't recognize that they were also my customers.

See, if I did my job well, the content and design systems I developed would meet the client’s customers' needs, which would reduce pressure on customer service staff. There’s no need to call or email if you can find a product online. Why call and wait on hold to make an appointment if you can make the appointment easily online? Most people will choose self-service if the system they're using makes things easy for them. 

From management’s perspective, it doesn’t hurt that good user experience design results in significant cost savings in the long run. Take a look at Gerry McGovern’s cost-benefit analysis, which shows how digital self-service often costs more upfront, but winds up being less in the long run when compared to face-to-face or phone service and support:

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But the goal isn’t to eliminate the need for customer service staff. The goal is to free them up to solve more complex problems — to deal with the problems that really require human empathy and problem-solving skills.

Many organizations don't recognize the potential of their customer service employees. With the proper support, they could be looking for patterns of need and using that information to improve their organization's products and services. Ideally, they’d be active participants in product and service development.

Do customer service staff play a role in your company’s product development? Do you have feedback systems in place that ensure information is shared across departments? Hit reply and let me know.

Thanks for reading,

Kyle