Focusing on the needs of customers is a thankless job in most organizations. In fact, the customer champion is seen as annoying, irritating and a trouble maker. It is a career-limiting role. 

Most organizations that I have dealt with over the years spout nice platitudes about the customer (or employee) being important. But in reality, the potential customer is somebody to be sold to, and the current customer is pretty much ignored. If you want to progress in most organizations you focus on your boss, not on your customer.

I’ll never forget the afternoon I sat in an almost empty Starbucks café. At the next table, a Starbucks regional manager was doing reviews with staff.

“You’ve got a problem,” he said in a low voice to one of them. “I’m getting reports that you’re handing our lattes to customers that are not filled up to the top. Why is that? Did you not want to hand it back to your colleague? Did you think they wouldn’t be your friend anymore if you were seen to be annoying them?”

The conversation went back and forth but the manager kept stressing that the customer must be your absolute focus. Your fellow employees are NOT the customer. Focus outwards, not inwards.

It is not natural to be customer-centric. Organizations are tribes, and the customer is not part of the tribe.

I’ve been consulting for 20 years. Every time I find people who are truly customer-centric when it comes to managing a public website, or employee-centric when it comes to managing an intranet, I find them in trouble with their bosses and often with their colleagues. It is scary how ego-centric and tribal most organizations are.

Customer-centric people are not liked by management. They ask awkward questions, they slow projects down by insisting on more testing. They definitely don’t feed management ego. Their fellow employees are annoyed by them because they keep asking to simplify content, code or interfaces. Because if you keep handing that latte back, from an organization-centric management point of view, you’re wasting time, using too much milk, draining profit.

In an age when the future survival of many organizations depends on putting the customer first, it is deeply ironic that there is nothing more career-limiting in most organizations than being customer-centric.

This is the Age of the Customer. We have just left the Age of the Organization. The organizations that stick to traditional hierarchical culture will become extinct soon enough. The organizations that make the slow and painful journey to a more collaborative, service-oriented culture will thrive.

We must go out and bring the customer in. Let’s use the web to break down the walls and silos. Because either we break them down themselves, or else the skeptical, cynical, disloyal customer will simply move on.

Humans are amazingly adaptable. We just need the will and desire to change. The change begins by celebrating, empowering and rewarding the customer champions within our organizations. Sadly, nine out of 10 organizations that I meet do the exact opposite. Just below the shiny skin of the marketing "we’re customer-centric" propaganda, they actively punish their own employees who try to champion the customer.