Rules, Customers, and How to Reconcile Them


Putting the customer first sometimes requires some bending of rules and organizational thinking. I will explain the deer in the birthday hat later, but it is an example of the good that can come when you think of the customer’s needs. Putting the customer at the center of your organization sometimes requires a leap of faith. Let’s talk about the why and the how of it, today.

For those on the front lines, they already get it. They have to deal with the customer, or user, every day. Whether it is the cashier at the check-out, the community manager manning your Facebook presence, or the call center rep fielding tech support calls, they all get this. What about the developer coding some hidden functionality in your mobile app? What about the auditor who looks over your revenues and expenses to see how much money you made last year? How do you bring them into the conversation?

Before I get into the how, let’s talk about the why. Why? Without your customers and users, you will have no business. An older demotivator from my friends at titled Apathy had this on it, “If we ignore the customer long enough they will just go away,” under a picture of a old-style telephone with cobwebs on it. There is your why. The folks on the front line get it. Does your legal counsel get it? What about all the other support functions at your brand?

And here is that feel good story about what happens when you truly put the needs of your customer first and how the world becomes a better place. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has bent their rules to allow a family who cared for a baby deer after Lilly’s mother was killed. Read the article and look at this picture. If you love animals, bring tissue. More information, including more pictures of Lilly can be found at

Customers at the Center

Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, just recently wrote a great article on customer-centric thinking. Quite frankly, the inspiration for today’s topic came from that post. So I am going to just highlight a few things that she said and put my own spin on them.

    • Talk to your customers. I think this is essential. If you have large parts of your organization that don’t get out in front of customers, find a way to do that. Bring customers in to your headquarters to talk to those employees. Do customer stories on your video portals. This will help you in two ways. Those customers will become better customers because they feel special. Mort importantly, when those employees are working on the next project they will be thinking of those real people and put their needs at the top of their mind.
    • Open up a two-way conversation. Ms. Whitman calls it an open dialogue. What feedback mechanism do you have with your customers? Who staffs it? Is it a simple one way conversation? If it is, you need to make it two way. You need to engage employees to interact on those channels. Consider using your support groups to do that where appropriate. The lawyer that handles contracts probably won’t be able to configure their new cloud based development environment, but there is a way for them to participate in the online forum around customer needs.
    • Inspire partnership. A customer who keeps coming back is a customer who will be worth their weight in gold, right? Well, Ms. Whitman states this as showing your customers that you are going to be around for a while. That they can count on you to be there years down the road. I don’t know how important that is for non-corporate customers, but customers do want to feel like they are not being dropped off in the deep waters with no help swimming back to shore. Even games as simple as Angry Birds have shown their commitment to their users with constant updates to address problems. Partner with your customers to show them that you care about the long term. The responsibility here is to not only caring, but taking action based on that caring.
    • What’s In It For Them. Don’t roll out your fantastic vision or mission statement to your customers and expect them to care. Customers don’t care where you are going as much as they care that you are going where they need you to be. If they don’t sense that you are going to be there for them on their journey, they will look for other partners.

Rules are Rules, They Are Meant to be Bent — For the Right Reasons

As you move towards putting your customers truly at the center of your every move, you will invariably run up against the barrier of rules, regulations and laws. Right? Enforcing those rules as written is something you need to do, right? Wrong. Are you focused on the customer when you adhere with laser focus to your rules without waver? Bending rules doesn’t mean doing things you shouldn’t. Put the customer at the center of your discussions and if it helps the customer, and I mean really helps the customer, re-look at the rules and see what can be done. For PayPal it meant doing things to avoid the law of money-transmission business for as long as they could, because the needs of the customer were of paramount importance to them. See where they are now.

In the season 7 episode Chrysalis of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine one of the characters says, very prophetically for this post, “your friend was right, you can’t break the rules of physics, but you can bend them.” If you aren’t bending around your rules, and sometimes breaking them, you aren’t trying hard enough. If your clients aren’t doing things that give you pause and force you to re-think the rules, they aren’t trying hard enough, either.

This section is mainly aimed at your legal counsel, and specifically your in-house legal partners. If you don’t have partners who understand that the customer is at the center of everything and looks for ways to enable that, you need to find better partners. This is harsh, but the world of digital is moving too fast these days to be held back by hide-bound reactionaries. Sometimes there will be things you can’t get around. If you are a lawyer reading this who always says no, even for things that can be said yes to, you will be seen as nothing more than Chicken Little, and your clients will start to work around you.

Going back to that demotivator, if you ignore your customer long enough, either through not paying attention to them, or through blindly following rules without bending them where needed, your customers will slowly stop coming back to you.

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