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Is the customer always right?


A recent experience prompts me to wonder whether we have a say in the way our customers treat us...

Every occupation is different and each has its own challenges but I’ve been talking recently to some friends who are actors and I’m convinced that acting and facilitating have a lot in common.  Both occupations require that you play a role; I know that when I’m working with a group I’m playing a slightly exaggerated version of me.  People who’ve met me before they see me facilitate say they’re often surprised by the difference although I don’t know why: someone who behaved in meetings the way they did when facilitating a group would soon become quite tiresome.

Another thing that acting and facilitating have in common is that you’re not allowed to have an “off” day.  When I worked in an office, if I came in tired one morning, it was fine to bury myself in work and slowly grind through it without saying much to anyone.  If I felt fed up one day, then it didn’t really have any impact on the paperwork I was doing. I could easily do paperwork and be grumpy at the same time.  When you’re acting or facilitating, you can’t do that - I can remember times when I’ve been almost heartbroken but have had to suck it up and pretend that everything’s okay. The group never knows about it because I’ve not told them.  

The other way in which the two occupations are similar is that you’re not often allowed to show your own feelings.  This came home to me a while back, when I was working with a client.  First they requested a phone conference before the workshop; they rearranged the call several times (always at the last minute) and then, when it happened, denied that they’d requested it in the first place.  They asked for an 8:15 am start and said there would be someone at the office to let me in at 7.00 am.  Nobody arrived until after 7:30 and we didn’t start, at their request, until 8:35.  Ten minute breaks became twenty minute breaks; lunch - which they had specifically requested as an hour, became an hour and fifteen minutes and even then I had to start with only half the delegates in the room.  In fact, all the delegates were in the room at the same time for less than half the day.  Individually, most of the delegates were lovely but as a group... all I can say is I don’t think I’ve felt more disrespected and I felt quite angry - none of which did I, or even could I, show.

Or could I?  After all, I wasn’t there because I was lonely - I was there to do a job (which they had asked me to do) and they were, I felt, making it as hard as possible for me to do that job.  I felt that, as I had limited time and  a lot of material to cover, and because they were the customer, I had no option but to accept their treatment.  Now I look back, though, I wonder if I should have acted differently; could I have stepped out of role and told them the impression their behaviour was having on me.  Would that have been better? What would you have done? 

One Response

  1. The customer is the customer…

    Hi Steve

    thanks for sharing and pointing out the interesting parallels between acting and facilitation.  On how customer’s treat us – I think there are a number of points;

    • I suggest it is up to us to set expectations.  Indeed as suppliers/advisors/consultants/trainers/facilitators I suggest we have a duty to our customers and to ourselves to set them out, to discuss, explore and agree them with our customer.  That way we give ourselves the right to point ‘stuff’ out when our customer ‘moves off’ and our customer has the right to point out when we ‘move off’
    • To me – this is the prologue to the drama (to abuse the acting metaphor).  If we fail to write the prologue, we set up our play for failure (for our customer first and foremost and also for ourselves)
    • So to my mind, there is a strategic element  – set the scene right from before you even have contact with the customer (for New Frontiers this is – we address the human dimension of change with bespoke programmes in which we will simultaneously challenge and support people through behavioural change).  That then gives us the right to point out all types of behaviours – good, bad, indifferent, catestrophic and to explore them as part of the change programme.
    • And a tactical element – the choice we make in the moment about what we say and do.  In TA terms – what state will I operate in right now…and what words will I use and what tone.   Just like improv!

    Oh and one final point – choose your customers carefully.  You always have that choice.

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