The customer is NOT always right

2016 11 18 The customer is NOT always right IMAGEI had some friends staying recently, and one of them asked me for a jug they could use to let some boiled water cool down. So, I gave my friend the jug that had been asked for and thought no more of it. Later my friend told me that the boiled water was for a medication that requires purified water. The thing is, if I had known that what my friend needed was, in fact,  purified water, I would just have provided some from the 25-litre container of distilled water that was right next to us when I fetched the jug.

This reminded me of similar situations I have been in at work, when clients have told me what they want, without actually telling me what it is that they really need. For example, one client asked me to carry out an ITSM assessment, and it was only by asking questions that I could identify their real need. It turned out that some of their customers had been complaining about poor service and it was vital to rectify this before service contracts came up for renewal.

People who develop software usually know that they need to investigate customer requests to tease out the real needs, but those of us who work in supporting roles sometimes forget to do the same. We know that we need to keep our customers happy, and consequently tend to focus on remembering that “The customer is always right”. We just do what we’ve been asked, because it’s what the customer wants, and we forget that this may not be what the customer needs.  But if we are to provide great service we can’t afford to forget.  Like good software developers we also need to make the time to identify what it is the customer needs.

The ability to distinguish between what people say they want and what they actually need is particularly important when you are trying to resolve a conflict or dispute. The Theory of Constraints includes a tool called The Evaporating Cloud which uses this distinction to help resolve conflicts, without anyone needing to make compromises about the things that really matter to them.  The tool helps both sides to understand each other’s needs, so that they can jointly find a resolution to the problem that ensures that everyone’s needs are met. For example, let’s go back to my client who had complaints about poor service. The service provider believed that the customer was utterly unreasonable.  They explained that they were over-delivering but the customer still wasn’t satisfied. They said that the customer kept picking on minor breaches of SLA targets, and seemed more interested in extracting penalties than in working with the provider to get their needs met. The customer believed that the service provider was utterly unreasonable.  They told me that the service provider just focussed on the numbers, and ignored their real needs. They said that the service failed regularly and that the service provider didn’t care about that.  The service provider was clearly only interested in meeting their documented numbers and had no interest in helping their business to succeed.

Here is how I applied the evaporating cloud to help them:

  • The FIRST step in the evaporating cloud was to identify a common goal. Talk to all the participants and identify what their goal is, try to find a point of agreement. In this case both the customer and the service provider agreed that they wanted a high quality service at a reasonable cost.
  • The NEXT step was to write down the things that both parties want. Usually these things are not compatible with each other, and that is the cause of the conflict. In this case the service provider wanted the customer to agree that meeting the SLA was sufficient and the customer wanted the service provider to understand that just meeting the SLA wasn’t working for them.

I could now display all this information in a simple diagram, leaving the boxes for the needs unfilled (see diagram).

 2016 11 18 The customer is NOT always right IMAGE2

  • The THIRD step was to identify what need will be satisfied by delivering what each party wants, and how meeting this need contributes to achieving the common goal.
  • The FINAL step is to identify an injection that can break the conflict. This involves finding a way for one party (or both parties) to give up what they want in a way that enables both parties to get what they need.

I’m not going to tell you how we completed the cloud, and what injection served to resolve the conflict; I will leave this as an exercise for you.  But do follow the links above if you want further information about the process, and if you have a conflict that needs resolving, think about trying The Evaporating Cloud. You can also find some good videos about the Evaporating Cloud on YouTube.

Even if you have your own tried and tested means of resolving conflicts, I hope you agree that understanding what people really need is much more important than just giving them what they want. The next time your customer asks you for something, remember that the customer is NOT always right.  Their real needs may require you to offer them something completely different from what they asked for. Your job is to understand not just what they want, but why they want it, and whether what they’ve asked for is truly the best way of giving them what’s needed to help them get there. If you really want to help your customers succeed make sure you know their goals, help them to identify what they need to do to achieve those goals, and then help them to do what’s needed.

Image Credit: Ashley Van Haeften

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