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When Customer Focus Becomes Predatory

If your goal is sales--and not customer satisfaction--you've become a vulture.

Customer focus is a good thing. We all know that. Give the customer what they want, sell based on needs, not products, and offer benefits, not features. Baseball and apple pie are good, too. Yawn.

But wait. Is it possible that you can be too customer-focused? Yes, it's possible, and I'm not talking about unintentionally turning yourself into a nonprofit by being too good to your customers.

I'm talking about your motives. Why is customer focus supposed to be such a good thing? When you talk about customer focus, how do you talk about it? Above all, ask yourself this: Whom is customer focus intended to benefit?

Pick your favorite search engine and enter "customer focus." Scan the results thoroughly. You'll find that at least half of the entries describe the benefits of customer focus as accruing to the seller. Most tend to skip over the part about the benefits to the buyer--it's all about how customer focus helps your sales.

Let me phrase this in a more provocative way: The more you think about how customer focus benefits you, the seller, the more you come to resemble a vulture. A vulture is very focused on its prey; in fact, it's extremely sensitive to the needs and environment of its prey. But its motives are entirely self-serving. The customer focus of a vulture is not about the customer--it's about the vulture.

"But that's not me!" you protest. "It's just understood that by serving customer needs I end up doing well. In fact, the only way I do well is if I do a great job of identifying and serving my customer's needs. That's not being a vulture, that's the beauty of capitalism--it works for both of us."

Unfortunately, motives have a funny way of distorting things. We live in a time when ROI and other measurements of success are revered; if a little measurement is good, then a lot must be better. And motives have a way of getting twisted when we're hyper-focused on these measurements.

Suppose I said to my wife, "Dear, I'd like to make our marriage even better. For a baseline, how would you rate us now on a scale of one to 10?"

My wife might reply, "Well, that's nice of you! What a great idea. I guess for a baseline, I'd rate us a 7.8. Let's see if we can improve it."

Well and good, plus I probably get a lot of credit for this idea, unless the following week, I said, "Dear, I took out the garbage and did the dishes twice without being asked. Do you think our marriage has hit 8.0 yet?"

At that point, my ratings would drop precipitously, because I just revealed whom all this was about. I wasn't focused on my marriage or my wife. I was just focused on improving my ratings--and the sooner the better.

That's the trouble with mixing bad motives and short-term metrics. They interact in a volatile way to make you look like a vulture. Worst of all, it doesn't even work. Customers can spot you for a phony a mile away; you know that because you can spot one, too.

So is customer focus bad? Not at all; it depends on your motives and your execution. The best customer focus aims at truly benefiting the customer--first, last and period. Couple that with a faith that, if you do a great job, you too will benefit--through loyalty, customer retention and relationships.

Do you benefit? Absolutely. As long as you don't focus on your benefit like a vulture.

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