Rethinking the "Customer is King" Mindset

I just got an email with the subject line, “How to Reimagine Customer Support Online.” It was pitching a recently recorded webinar they did with an industry leader. The email body started with, "If I had to summarise customer service in one minute, I would always start and end with, the customer is king" 


I read this over a few times trying to figure out why my face started to get hot and the feeling of discomfort grew each time I read the line. 


The thing is, I strongly- STRONGLY- disagree. 


"The customer is king." 

"The customer is always right." 

"Customer-first mindset." 

Here's the latest one I'm hearing all the time as the biannual rewrite of customer success titles: "Customer Happiness Team."


And truly - I GET IT. Delighting customers is critical to the success of your business. But the “customer is king” story won’t get you there. Stick with me until the end and I’ll tell you what story will actually set you up to win.

Here are the top 3 reasons why “customer is king” statements set you up for failure.

Rethinking the Customer is King Mindset
Reason 1
Opening the door for team inequity is bad.

Using this type of phrasing associated with your customer-facing support teams, implies these teams (often Customer Support and Customer Success) abide by different principles than the rest of the company. That being "customer first" (whatever that means) is, “just a support team thing.” 

The concept of a “customer-first mindset” is something we hear about ad nauseam in the support and success world. Every CEO wants to say their company has a “customer-first mindset.” But what does this really mean? I’ve found everyone has their own definition for this. This means right there, we have a problem. If everyone defines this differently, that opens up a dangerous territory for the language to be co-opted to become a blanket catch-all for everything and anything under the sun.

“The product team isn’t building the feature I hear requested the most from my customers. That’s not a customer-first mindset.”

“The customer I just sold to emailed me saying they’re frustrated they have to do their onboarding themselves. That’s not a customer-first mindset.”

“I just learned that a support tech told a customer their bug may not get fixed today. That’s not a customer-first mindset.”

Now these are reductive. You probably haven’t heard this verbatim. But you can probably quickly count the number of times in the past year something like this has come up.

So what does “customer first” mean? 

Does it mean we prioritize our work to serve the best outcomes for as many customers as possible?

Do we throw all our resources at saving every last customer who might want to churn?

Do we built our product roadmap based solely on customer feedback?

Is our team there to serve as the “yes person” on every request we receive from a customer?

Do we force our support techs to stay on calls with angry customers who are yelling at them over something they have no agency over?

Without defining what “customer-first” means for your team and company, it serves to cause chaos and a massive gap in expectations between people, teams and with your customers.

Reason 2
This is a slippery slope.

Considering the customer as king of your company is a dangerous and slippery slope. While leading large customer support teams for the better part of a decade, I can tell you this right now- more often than not, the customer is NOT right. They are usually wrong. Now, their problems and emotions are always valid. But when it comes to customer requests, customer wants and customer issues, they are not inherently right. 


The thing is, most customers don't actually know what they want. They know they have problems (and as aforementioned, those problems and emotions are always valid). But most customers don’t have context on exactly how a product should solve their problem. They may have some ideas, but those ideas may or may not be any good. 


How many times have you experienced the situation where the loudest customers get what they want? The person who is the most upset, the person who hammers the support team with daily tickets. The customer who comes from a good logo and has some clout. Does this make their problem any better or more valid than the other dozen people who had issues this week? It doesn't. But with the mindset of "the customer is king", you're going to be stuck with making reactive, slapdash decisions to appease. 

Reason 3
The math is wrong.

"The customer" doesn't mean anything. You have HUNDREDS or THOUSANDS of customers. So calling "the customer" a king, or saying that “customer happiness” is the be-all-end-all for everything is an impossible task. You cannot make every one of your customers happy. You cannot make every one of your customers successful. And you cannot retain every single one of your customers. 

Customer happiness should not be your goal. It should not drive your decision-making. Here's how I think about it:

I use Gmail for everything, personal and business. I spend more time in my Gmail app than probably any other technology. Now, Gmail works fine for me. It gets the job done. I'm able to relatively easily navigate through my Inbox, prioritize certain items, search for old items, etc. But it's not perfect. I get frustrated daily (because when you click the little three dots at the top of an email, the app often reads your click as "Reply" and then I get totally panicked that I'm accidentally responding to an email I'm not ready to respond to!!!). Yet, every single hour, I log in to Gmail and use it. There's very little that would likely get me to switch how I manage my Inbox. 

But I'm not a "happy" customer. I'm not singing Gmail's praises on a daily basis. I am a daily active user, who is satisfied that Gmail solves the problem I have, which is to prioritize, manage and stay on top of my emails.

Companies that overdo it with indexing towards NPS as the ultimate KPI, or trying to take a customer like me and turn me into an evangelist are going to burn a lot of energy with very little return. Sure there are some Gmail evangelists out there... I imagine. And I bet they've been great in providing Google with some referrals and great reviews. But more often than now, customers need a reliable, consistent product that solves their problems. That may not make them H!A!P!P!Y!

I go back to the fact that "the customer" doesn't exist- you have a LOT of customers, and each person probably uses your product slightly differently. So if you make each and every customer a king, you're going to have too many monarchs to serve.

The next wave of technology needs to be an opinionated product and UX built on company experience, staff expertise, AND customer feedback. The customer is not always the expert at the thing they are trying to do. But a company that works with THOUSANDS of people who are trying to do the same thing sure has a lot of expertise. So let's not shy away from adjusting the monarch here.

Maybe your employees are king. And your customers are the subjects. Make sure your king is humble, open and seeks to learn and grow. And if so, then "The King" will be perfectly suited to listen to their subjects, gather important feedback and make decisions to help pursue success for the entirety of their subject base.

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