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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

More Than One Tough Customer

by Ira Bryck

Customer noun:

  • One that buys goods or services.
  • An individual with whom one must deal.

—American Heritage Dictionary

Is there a mission statement that doesn't proclaim the customer is king? To get maximum mileage from that adage, take a deeper look at who your customers are. In my years in retail, it seemed simple: the person who walked in the door, who theoretically was always right; who you would try to attract and retain however possible, usually involving bending over backwards. To foster loyalty, make them feel serviced and valued. The secret of keeping a customer? Discover their needs, and fulfill them.

During a friend's recent visit to an area business, she was shocked to witness an owner verbally abusing an employee. The employee wasn't shocked; it was standard behavior. In the same establishment I actually heard a salesperson berating a customer, who did seem shocked. The seed wasn't far from the tree.

A CEO tells me that since his company's succession, he is now the only family member involved. His new challenge, he says, is to maintain a family atmosphere among non family members. Since research shows that money is hardly the only reward for a job well done, other extrinsic factors, including feeling valued, create loyalty that helps retain non-family members, and create a bond vital to an effective management team. Notice the trend of large corporations to portray their staff and you, the consumer, as a huge family.

I never regarded employees, or my colleague/parents, as customers. But they were "individuals with whom one must deal," or as management consultant Brian Tracey says "whom you must please to get paid." The wise owner deals with family and non-family associates with the same wisdom and kid gloves as your end user. The framework of the "internal customer" will remind you of the priority of assessing and satisfying the needs of everyone in your constellation. Poor communication with the internal customer will haunt you as surely as mistreatment of the purchaser of your product or service.

Qualities one seeks in an employee are nurtured and developed if he/she is attended to as conscientiously as you might treat an external customer. In building a management team, communicate that you are open to being influenced by the creative work of the group. You wouldn't disregard a focus group of consumers; give the same regard to the input of personnel. Their commitment will flourish when they know you consider them a valuable asset. They will share in your vision, striving for excellence and profit.

In committing to regular family meetings and councils, you are expressing openness to deal with issues of succession, compensation, and job /family dissatisfaction. You stand a good chance of enhancing the quality of your working family relationships. A code of conduct for family members that is not a generic list of commandments, but a thoughtful, relevant tool based on real issues confronting your particular situation show you are paying attention and facing reality.

Justify the time investment by realizing it is a vital mission of improving customer service. For many, it is the best way to create a corporate climate that will attract and retain the external customers who are putting bread on your family's table.

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