Customers First


The issue on this is rarely the desire to be of service. I don’t see anyone jumping up and down yelling “Who cares about the customer? Ignore the customer!” So my focus today is not on “whether” you should put the customer first, but on some infinitely more challenging “w’s” – who, what/why and when. And let’s throw a “how” in there for good measure.

At its most basic, the word “customer” refers to people who have a choice to invest discretionary resources (time or money) in your service or product. They will make a decision about repeated usage/patronage based on their experience (or perceived experience).

This is fairly clear-cut when we are talking about a retail establishment. If customers have a bad experience with a server or cashier, they simply won’t come back. It’s more complicated when we’re talking about roles. In these roles, we provide products or services for internal “customers.” It’s much more difficult for these customers to choose to go elsewhere. It can happen – and negative feedback can come back to bite us at performance review time. But this can take awhile, so it must be our conscious choice to turn on the customer mindset. We have to be aware that we would face a much steeper climb if everyone we worked with everyday had to choose us from a lineup of reasonable alternatives using their limited resources.

So with this as context, the question you need to ask is: “Of all the people I work with each day, who are the most important for me to serve exceptionally well?” And it needs to be a finite list. The key to individual and collective success in a 21st century world is realizing that you can’t know everything, do everything, please everyone, all the time. Really. But (and this is key) you want to WOW at least one group with your exceptional service or products. Average customer service across the board will not cut it. So you have to start by asking yourself “who is the customer you are putting first?” This is not a question we like to ask. We would rather just say “everyone.” But if your answer is “everyone” then it is really “no one.” I’m sorry to say, folks, you can’t WOW all of the customers all of the time. And if that’s not sobering enough, let me add: you also can’t ANNOY the customers that you are not trying to WOW. In other words, it is best to think of ‘putting customers first’ as a continuum.

So really think about this question. Who should get your very best? Consider the impact your choices have on the business, on your department, on your career. And get specific. If your first answer is “my team”, fine, that’s a start, but push for even more clarity in your thinking, such as “the high performers on the X project team.” This leads to a clearer, cleaner line of focus on where we can/should have the greatest impact.

Defining your list is likely not the end of it, because some of your priority customers may have competing – even conflicting – needs, wants and timing. An area of big conflict can be choosing between your boss versus your internal clients. It can also look like regional needs versus divisional needs or corporate needs or the needs of line leaders versus the needs of functional leaders.
How do we resolve these conflicts? This leads us to the next “W.”

Look at your priority customer list and ask yourself, what are the 2-3 most important services/products that this finite group wants from me? Is it access in a crisis? Is it informed advice on matters economic? Is it thinking ahead to the next market trend? Is it building alignment among our many partners?  Look for the commonalities – and resist the temptation to say “everything.” Because again, if it is everything, then it is nothing.

Be sure to also consider the “why” of it. Why does that particular aspect of service matter to your customer? Think in terms of impact for the customer, not activity for you. From the customer’s point of view, what constitutes impact?

  • You (leader/colleague/staff) made something I (customer) need or want to do qualitatively better – something which allows me (customer) to increase MY effectiveness
  • You got me something I need or want faster or cheaper… (increased MY efficiency)
  • I ended up with more than I paid for or invested in terms of time or money (improved  my ROI)
  • You helped me prepare for my customers of tomorrow or their changing needs/preferences (innovation)
  • You did something that increased MY customers usage or satisfaction with ME
  • You did something to improve MY capacity for doing business (infrastructure)

In general, business ‘customers’ (aka clients, partners, management, suppliers) care about products or services that help them in six critical areas: effectiveness, efficiency, ROI, innovation, their customer utilization or satisfaction levels, and their infrastructure (ability to leverage people, processes)

“When” is important because there is almost always a moment when we have to make our priorities and choices clear – and it usually means that someone will be less happy than someone else. But to lead is to choose… and to choose is to make someone unhappy. Trying to make everyone happy, makes no one happy. All we can do is put on our big boy/big girl pants and be transparent about our logic and our choices. And if our choice doesn’t fare well when examined, then we must admit it, learn from it, and move on to the next choice.

Lastly, don’t forget the “how.” How we provide the service to a customer can be what they value most. For example, you provided this service by including me and by engaging my customers which accelerated their acceptance of my new product. You didn’t take up much of my time; you were funny/pleasant/good to have around. You taught me ways to be more self-sufficient.

Don’t assume that one size fits all. Different customers value different ways of being served. Think back to the “why” you identified for that customer, because their desired impact can be very helpful in determining the “how” that will be the most satisfying for them. Then make this the focus of your accountability measures. Ask your customer to hold you accountable in terms of impact. Talk about excellence, not perfection, which are two very different things. Once you establish your measures, make them clear, public and continuous. Track yourself, and stay ahead of your customer in the measurement process to show you care about the best quality service/product to your best customers. Self-evaluate, reveal and self-correct early and often.

In summary, consider the following when putting the customer first:


  • Who are my most important stakeholders/ customers?
  • Who must I “wow” (not just serve) for the greatest benefit to the business, the organization and my career?


  • What exactly is the precise product or service that I need to deliver?
  • What exactly does my customer need this for – to increase their effectiveness, efficiency, innovation, customer utilization/ satisfaction, capacity to serve their customers?


  • When do I need to deliver the product or service for maximum impact?


  • What are the most important elements in HOW I deliver this?
  • What do my customers care most about?
  • How can I focus my accountability measure on what’s most important to them?

The Bottom Line: Putting customers first is about asking the right questions early and making difficult choices transparently. And in all cases, not choosing is the worst choice of all.


Laurie Anderson, PhD, is a clinical psychologist with over 20 years experience as an executive coach to leaders in organizations ranging from Fortune 100 companies to the World Bank. Visit or call 1-708-524-2444 for more information on Laurie’s services for individuals, groups, and organizations.

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