Would Jeff Bezos Forget The Customer?

A Facebook post from a former client caught my eye recently. He believes the NFL and a few other groups have forgotten about the importance of customers. “As customers, should we be subjected to self-righteous grandstanding, whether we agree or disagree with a particular point of view?” he asked.

Let’s see, what would Peter Drucker, the father of business consulting and author of The Practice of Management, say to that? Drucker wrote, “The purpose of a business is to create and keep customers.”

Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos believes, “A company should obsess over its customers.” Given that Bezos had 600,000 customers in 1997 and more than 300 million today, he might be on to something.

Whose job is it to meet or exceed customers’ needs? Employees, of course.

After more than 35 years studying organizations and organizational behavior, I believe that when an organization focuses equally and simultaneously on two stakeholders–customers and employees—it’s more apt to succeed in multiple ways, including financially, than if one stakeholder group predominates.

When employees’ needs are favored over customers’ needs, customers most often lose out. Likewise, when customers are favored over employees, employees might become resentful, which has in many cases provoked action designed to sabotage the company.

NFL owners have supported the protesting employees, (whose behavior has been anything but customer focused), by saying that their employees have a first amendment right to say whatever they want to say. OK, but, does that mean leaders should encourage or continue to support and employ people who say things that tarnish a reputation and brand and hurt sales? Not if you’re a wise leader.

Set the NFL aside for a minute and go to Rochester, Minnesota, home of the Mayo Clinic. As one of the revered brands in the health care or medical business, the Mayo Clinic, (to whom, I’ve consulted), lives by three shields, as they’re called: patient care, education, and research. These three shields represent the foundation of the Clinic’s entire program. Employees are expected to help “live” the three shields by saying and doing what’s required to deliver outstanding patient care through research and scholarly endeavors.

Another example of customer focus is Mars, Inc., to whom I have also consulted, based in McLean, Virginia. The company has five principles–quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom. They’re the foundation of the company’s culture and its approach to business. They unite people across generations, geographies, languages and cultures. I’ve seen Mars leaders refer to the “Five Principles” as they go about decision-making in meetings, or out on the plant floor.

What happens at the Mayo Clinic, Mars or any other great organization when employees put themselves ahead of the clinic or company, when they say or do things that are inconsistent with delivering on the brand promise, or when they put themselves ahead of what’s best for the customers?

They’re held accountable for what they do. That may mean receiving appropriate feedback. It may include skills training. It may mean termination if the employee can’t or won’t help realize the vision, execute the business strategy, or reinforce the brand.

I realize some people today are uncomfortable with the notion of accountability. Some think everyone should win the blue ribbon. No one loses. But, in fact reality in the business world is quite different. There are winners and losers. If an employee—or player in the NFL—doesn’t maintain an unyielding focus on the customers, there should be consequences. That’s a business reality.

In the case of the NFL, the employees took control. The owners didn’t lead. They didn’t hold their employees—the players—accountable for their off-brand behavior. They didn’t put the customers first or even at a level equal to the employees.

Key Takeaway: Clarify your vision, strategy and brand promise. Require employees to live them every day. Hold them accountable for their behavior. Don’t wimp out by using the first amendment as your excuse. Either lead, follow, or get out of the way.

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