Confusing Customer Focus

Misuse of the “Customer” Concept [the broken link was removed]

“We are told that the airlines are our customers,” FAA inspector Charlambe “Bobby” Boutris said. “But we have a more important customer, the taxpayers” who want government to ensure a safe aviation system.

That’s crazy. The FAA is supposed to be serving and protecting the passengers, not the airlines. This is like a supervisor in a workplace treating their employee as a customer… even in a “servant leadership” environment, that’s not right.

“Customer focus” is good, but only if you properly define customer relationships. I’d prefer the FAA think of me and my fellow travelers as the “customer,” not the airlines.

I agree there are several different customers. This is actually not uncommon outside of government but for government agencies multiple “customers” that might have divergent desires are more frequent. But the “customer” frame of reference I still think has value.

I actually think the problem is the way people choose to interpret the idea. If I buy a car from a dealer they don’t sell it to me for $100. They don’t agree to not tell the government so I can avoid sales tax. They don’t agree to sell me a car that is not legal in the state. Customer service does not mean do what is in the interest of the customer irregardless of laws, regulations, good business practices, etc..

I would say doctors don’t give patients anti-biotics for viral infections (but actually they do). They shouldn’t. When doctors behave irresponsibly and give antibiotics in ways that harm the heath of society, some might try to claim it is because they are giving the patient/customer what they want. That is not a reasonable excuse.

In some ways the airlines are the customers of regulators (as are passengers, shippers…). But that doesn’t mean that you ignore the law or the purpose of your organization’s existence. That argument never has made any sense to me. Does anyone say, “no company can treat those that pay them as customers because then the customer will say give it to me free and of course you have to, because they are the customer”?

I suppose it might not be valuable to use the customer frame if it confuses too many people. I find it useful, but some do seem to get crazy ideas in their head when a government agency talks about customers.

Related: Customer Un-focusManaging GovernmentPurpose of an OrganizationLA Jail Saves Time Processing Crime

4 thoughts on “Confusing Customer Focus

  1. I think the closer analogy to healthcare is who is the schedule built around? In lean thinking the fewer patients in the system, the lower their wait times (both in the office and waiting for an appointment) and the less repeated work in the system the better the efficiency of the office (and real life proves this to be true). But just the other day a piece in the WSJ promoted double booking by a physician to make up for no-show appointments. The logic is that when viewed from the perspective of the doctor there is no wasted time. Viewed from the persepctive of the patient it creates wild variation in wait times, decreases efficiency and worsens wait times. Of course I can’t find a study that modelled double booking, but practical experience (and a lot of data mining) says that low variation and good flow is much more important to efficiency than a slight gain in lower down time. Thinking hard about who the end user really is means the world in good management.

  2. The customer concept is flawed, but only because of it’s usage. At one time “customer” meant “Excuse me, I’ve got a customer!” Now it’s closer to “If I don’t talk to this customer, I’ll get in trouble.”

    A Great marketer now calls them all “clients” and to him it means he has the clients best interest first. If he has to give away all his profits to benefit the customer, he does. This, assuming he has done enough homework that he knows he can help the client further down the road. If you don’t have a plan to give additional help to your customer (future sales), then your not thinking of their best interest.

  3. In terms of providing a focus for service delivery and improvement, I’ve only really found this strong emphasis on the concept of “customer” to be useful at a kindergarten level. For example I have recently visited some former Eastern Bloc countries and noted how many restaurants and hotels are still managing the transition from “take it or leave it” service delivery, to a more subtle and attentive approach that is more likely to keep them in business now people have broader choices. Once the penny has dropped that no-one owes us a living and most of us need to work hard and improve to stay in business, then we should really be ready for some more sophisticated stuff

    After a point, as I think your article suggests, a continuing semantic use of the terms customer and client only serve as a general distraction and to blur overall system strategies and objectives. People get hung up on particular terms and words and this can lead to a lot of time wasted having arguments over all the wrong things. Where we have a complex system with numerous external interfaces (customers? clients? stakeholders? central government? the local community?) I believe it is most practical to call a spade a spade and avoid the use of the term “customer” to potentially describe a number of external parties often with quite different interests and agendas. At least that way you know where you are – all you have to do then is find a way to satisfy them all – easy


  4. Yes, I agree it seems that now a days, companies forget that the customer, more than a customer, is a potential client. It seems that once they achieve me as a customer, they forget I can keep investing and spending in their company.


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