Remember when organizations used to talk about the “internal customer?” You still hear it sometimes, but it’s mostly fallen on the trash heap of yesterday’s useless business jargon – another example of a cutesy idea turned into a misguided metaphor.
You could argue that the proponents of that idea had their hearts in the right in place – i.e., coworkers should treat one another with the same regard and cooperation they give to customers. But think about the flipside of that comparison. One defining characteristic of a true company-customer relationship is this – if a customer gets sufficiently unhappy with the product or service they’re getting, they’re outta’ here.
We like to think we’re fostering the kind of customer loyalty that will give us some wiggle room to recover if we screw up. But anyone who believes the typical disgruntled customer is going to stick around for long while you “work things out” is sorely mistaken. In fact, according to research, for every customer complaint a company gets, 25 more people have a similar problem, but instead of saying anything, they just quietly walk away.
Now, is that really the kind of relationship we want co-workers to have with one another? When things get tough and tensions run high and solutions are hard to find, do we want colleagues to bail out and say c’est la vie? Hardly. Fact is, we got it ass-backwards in the “internal customer” days. Instead of thinking of employees as customers, we should be thinking about customers as partners.
Luckily, we’re moving in the right direction. Unless you’ve been on another planet in recent years, you’ve seen the shifting tide in employee communications – moving away from creating messages for an employee audience to engaging employees in conversations as partners and stakeholders. As it should be. After all, isn’t it a bit weird to think of the people who make everything happen in an organization as an “audience?” They ARE the organization. They certainly are NOT a passive recipient of messages – or at least they shouldn’t be.
But what about customers – the people communicators subject to a constant barrage of sales and marketing messages? Surely, THEY are an audience, right?
Not according to the authors of Grapevine, who advocate WITH versus AT marketing. “AT marketing is about targeting, capturing, and one-way communication,” they say. (I won’t quibble for now over the faux pas of “one-way communication,” which is sort of like clapping with one hand.) “WITH marketing means that companies and consumers work with each other. They (companies) cease to think of consumers as targets. They find ways to … partner with them. In WITH marketing you don’t talk about capturing. You talk about listening. Targeting is a concept from the old days. Now it’s about engaging.”
Different organizations will take different approaches to engagement, to be sure. But the underlying premise is the same – messages don’t build relationships, conversations do – whether your partners are inside or out.
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