Do happy staff make for happy customers or do increasingly demanding customers result in a stressful work environment?
Complexity is both a giver and a taker. It gives us the Internet and smartphones. It takes our time and annoys us. What we really want is complexity working in the background — invisible to us — as it makes our lives more enriched and convenient. What we don’t want is when complexity erupts to the surface, confuses and frustrates us and gets in our way.
But who are we? Are we the employee who wants an easy work life? Or are we the customer who wants an easy life? It’s hard to achieve both. Make it easy for the customer and you make it harder for the employee. Make it easy for the employee and you make it harder for the customer.
Customer champions are generally not liked within traditional organizations. They send the content back, saying to rewrite it and make it simpler. They send the code back. They want to constantly test with customers. They are the irritating voice that is always asking the awkward questions.
The recent New York Times expose of the Amazon workplace makes for disturbing reading. Amazon has a brutal and relentless work environment. The hyper ambitious thrive. As one employee boasted “not everyone can get into Harvard.” Everyone is pushed to the limit in order to innovate and maintain a relentless customer obsession. One senior executive talked about how she had plans for the weekend but then a customer delivery fell behind schedule and she had to spend Friday night sorting things out.
"It's hard to escape the conclusion that any company that seeks to compete on a superior user experience must push further than anyone else," Ben Thompson wrote in his Stratechery newsletter. “By extension, I'm not sure it's an accident that not just Amazon but also Apple is notorious for a very trying work environment and zero concept of work-life balance.”
The customer isn’t king anymore. The customer is dictator. For years, organizations exploited the fact that customers lacked information and were disorganized. But today customers are often better organized and have more information than the organizations they are dealing with. This is a huge shift in power, and increasingly disloyal customers intend to exploit it ruthlessly.
Inside a great many organizations, we find despondency, disengagement and disillusionment. Senior management is mainly out-of-touch, while granting itself unheard of bonuses for second-rate performance.
The customer revolution has already happened. But we now need a revolution in the workplace. We must find a model that is customer-obsessed while not feeling like a slave ship.
The new workplace will inevitably be a demanding place but it can also be a very rewarding one. What is certainly true is that if we maintain an old style hierarchy with a newly discovered customer obsession, employees end up with the worst of both worlds. We must move towards a much flatter, interdisciplinary, flexible and collaborative environment. We must organize around the customer, not the senior manager. We must measure customer outcomes, not organizational inputs. The change begins when enough employees find the courage to demand a proper work-life balance.