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Weekend read: the customer is always…?

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There are many truisms when it comes to customers, but which holds true?  Ultimately, as I search for the true notion of what the customer is and is not, I realise it comes down to a fine a balancing act between customer and employee needs.

By Steyn Basson, Synthesis Divisional Director

“The customer is always right”. The first time I saw a sign bearing this message I was probably about seven or eight years old. So (naturally) I proceeded to try and prove the sign wrong immediately. “2 + 2 is 5” I kept muttering under my breath, hoping that someone would point out the error of my ways. “Aha!” I would say, “Your sign said I’m always right, so there!”. But, my “aha” moment never came. Mostly because I was a shy little kid and my muttering would only have been audible to a bat with its ear pressed right up against my mouth.

Despite not being able to test the validity of this saying, the (apparent) truism stuck with me. Later in life, I (blindly) repeated it often and tried to live the truth of it. And it worked. For a while.

Over the years I was faced with situations where I was exposed to client decisions that would not lead to the best outcomes. Usually not because the client wasn’t competent or smart, but simply because they lacked experience in the area the decision was related to, or misunderstood some of the complications that could follow. Having been armed with the requisite experience, I could see the dangers and pitfalls of the approach. But “the customer is always right”, so better to keep quiet. Right?


As tempting as silence was, the younger me could see the dangers in this approach, and although tough at first, it started becoming clear that there were times where keeping quiet (and erring on the side of client correctness) just wasn’t an option. At times it made sense to raise objections during meetings, but at other times, approaching the individual/team in question outside of the meeting context made more sense. Regardless, the long-term outcomes were better than if I had just remained quiet.

Unfortunately, this created a cognitive dissonance: How could the customer always be right, and yet clearly they weren’t in these instances.

The truth of the matter is that approaching engagements in this way is a sure recipe for disaster. In the short term your customer might feel good about making all the (apparently) right decisions, but in the long term it will usually lead to worse outcomes for everyone. Employees engaging with clients in this way also start under-valuing their contribution and competence – they were put in the room in the first place since they could make a difference and add value by relying on their skill sets and experience.

To be clear, the intention here is not to imply that when dealing with clients you always know more than they do. This is certainly not the case. However, understand that there are definite times where your expertise and experience are valuable, and indeed, required.

With my first truism in tatters, fortunately there was another one to jump onto that felt almost as good, and seemed to address all my concerns:

“The customer is king”. From day one this felt a lot better. I could give my opinion in client meetings where it made sense, and long-term outcomes for clients were generally much better under this model. This approach had a major drawback however, which wasn’t immediately obvious: at times our employees were made to feel like servants to the king.

The absolute vast majority of our clients behave (and have always behaved) respectfully and reasonably. But there have been some exceptions in the past – most often driven by pressure on the client in question. Cases where clients have made unreasonable demands – for example, signing off a work order for a month-long project and insisting it be delivered within two weeks. “We believe the timelines to be realistic if you work through the next two weekends and sleep a bit less”. Or as one of my colleagues pointed out once, “it’s not about sleeping more/less, it’s about sleeping faster”.

Although this model looked very promising from a client perspective, it had a terrible impact on employee morale in the long term. The natural consequence of the low morale was that overall delivery to the clients in each of these cases deteriorated, and in cases where the “extra mile” was needed, employees just did not have the energy or drive to deliver. All in all, worse outcomes for everyone. This led to my third iteration:

“The customer relationship is king”. And finally, I was faced with a model that felt right. It meant that we could balance the team’s health and wellbeing with the client’s best outcome. It did mean that at times we had to say no to clients (where there was a clear downside to proceeding), and at times employees are still called on to make short-term sacrifices. But now, more often than not, there is a willingness by employees to go the extra mile, because it is seen as the exception, not something that is just expected as the normal course of things by the client.

Richard Branson once said: “If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your clients”. And this is absolutely true. If you are willing to go to bat for your employees, they will be there for you when you need them most.

This is a motto that we try to live up to at Synthesis. We don’t always succeed. The pace of growth and external pressure sometimes makes this difficult, but no matter what, we make sure that we circle back. Our employees have always been and will always be our most valuable “resource” (my team knows that if I ever refer to any of them as “resources”, they are welcome to refer to me as an “overhead”).

At Synthesis we have implemented systems such as employee advocates, mentorship, as well as TSATs (team satisfaction surveys), in addition to mechanisms such as open-door policies to ensure that we never lose that personal touch, and that our employees never become “just another number”.  We complement all of this with CSATs (client satisfaction surveys) to make sure we keep delivering value to our clients, and that we hit the right balance.

In models such as “the client is always right” or “the client is king”, there is a strong focus on client feedback, but not enough emphasis on employee feedback or the relationship in general. Any relationship in which the focus is exclusively on one side as opposed to the relationship in general, is ultimately doomed to failure. Striking the right balance between client and employee is the only way to ensure that employees, as well as clients, are set up for success.



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