Why have children, or – as a company – why have customers? (Assuming you’re lucky enough to have them.) You better treat your customers as grown-ups, but I think there’s some similarities. In both cases, it’s the natural thing to do: We have the former for more love in our lives, and the latter for money. Both our kids and our customers give us a purpose in life and work, respectively. But aside from the obvious, what else is in it for us?
First, our children and our customers help us learn and practice and grow in what we do. The kids bring new words, fashion, or questions home. They provide a different perspective, and keep reminding us that the world around us is changing. I’m experiencing the same when our customers ask us to support new technology or standards. We’re pushed to learn new things as their needs evolve. But we’re also forced to stick to doing things that aren’t new and shiny anymore, as long as they’re still important to them. Kids and customers are heavily influencing the rhythm of our life and work, they are agents of change and continuity.
If we listen to and care about their feedback, we will get to know ourselves better: How do they see us? Do we seem to live according to what we say our values are? (Kids are fast to point out when we’re inconsequential or injust. And they’ll copy our bad habits in an instant. Guess how they learned that most of the day should be spent staring at an iOS screen.) Also, as a parent and when serving customers, we learn that we’re making mistakes. That not everything is under our control, that we have to cope with others’ and our own weaknesses. That we don’t have the time and skills to do everything we should do. This is humbling, but the positive feedback is wonderful. And knowing my own limitations helps me treat others’ more graciously.
As a parent or a vendor, we’re investing in a long-term relationship. We’re (hopefully) learning to take responsibility, to communicate well, to build trust by being honest and reliable. Since we have power over our children and (in some ways) over our customers, since they depend on us, empathy and generosity are extra important. And freedom – “lock in” is poisonous. Even if they’re not walking away right now, they must know they have the freedom to leave.
What’s wonderful is that we get the chance to shape our world. Just picture a few families you know: Isn’t it amazing how different they are in their parentship, their family rituals, how they talk or travel or have fun together? A handful of people who trust and depend on each other have the freedom to define what their home, their shared personal space, looks and feels like. Yes, you have to compromise, but you still have a huge influence. In business it’s less intense, but the best vendor/customer relationships can also evolve into a partnership that both sides can shape to become something personal and trustful. (I’m grateful for our amazing customers, who often trust us for more than a decade and have taught me so many things already!)