Someone has stolen the English language and I think we should ask for it back. Fear not, this isn’t some pseudo-Faragian rant about how it’s every man’s right to use abusive language towards women without some hysterical harpy leaping up and burning her bra. Or indeed a paean to the good old days when casual racism was treated with the levity it deserves. No, it’s much more serious than that. It’s about what companies are doing to English and how they must be stopped.
Before I begin, I’d like to make it clear that any resemblance to the practices of any organisation I may or may not have worked with, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. And frankly, it would be nigh on impossible to identify a particular corporation when the abuse to which I will refer is so widespread as to have infiltrated every business in the land.
This thing I will go on to explain is something that sounds good, but like so many things that sound good, is in fact dreadful. I’ll cut to the chase. It’s calling colleagues inside your organisation “customers”. There. Shocked, are you? Well bear with me. So, for example, if you’re the person who turns computers off and then on again when they break, the poor sap whose marketing report suddenly disappeared is your “customer”.
The logic here is clear. Well, it’s simple, which is not quite the same thing. Someone from a management consultancy was thinking about new ways to dress up their services (telling bosses to fire people) when they stumbled on something so ground-breaking that it emerged from their mind as a fully-formed PowerPoint presentation. “The customer is always right”, thought Jed. “And if the customer is always right, why not make everyone the customer! Then, every time a colleague does something for someone, they can act like that person is a customer! So they’ll treat them in a super-awesome way (Jed’s American, I think)!” I then picture Jed pulling his jacket over his head and airplaning (American) around the office shouting “wooooooo”.
And what a grand idea it is. Treat everyone like a customer, and then whatever it is you do in your job to help that person will be so much better because you care about them as much as you do your actual customers. It’s possible you’ve already spotted a potential flaw in this. But, in fact, the reality of how most organisations treat their actual customers (yes you, BT. And every train company) isn’t the problem here. The problem is that Mick in sales, or Diane in comms, they just aren’t your customers. They’re your colleagues. Your workmates. Fellow employees. Lots of words can be used to describe to them, but they are categorically not customers.
“But wait”, pipes up Jed (his bonus is riding on this being a success, remember) “they are like customers. They come to you for a service, so they are customers for your service. Which means – OH MY GOD – you can deliver them customer service.” Then he’s off with the plane thing again.
I have one very significant problem with this approach. And lots of smaller problems with it, but let’s stick to the biggie. It actually comes back to Jed’s eureka moment and the notion that “the customer is always right.” Put aside, if you can, the fact that hardly any businesses make you, the actual customer, feel that you’re right. Or even half-right. In fact, most businesses see you as a pretty irritating distraction from their real purpose – having stupidly long and unnecessary internal meetings.
Now, with your disbelief firmly suspended, think again of the implication of calling your colleagues “the customer”. Firstly, like it or not, you can’t shake the notion that this makes them more right than they used to be. So now, if you’re, say, a writer (plucked from the air, this) then you need to write exactly what Brian in networks thinks you should. He’s the customer, after all. The fact that Brian is a barely literate simpleton whose knowledge of English flows exclusively from back copies of Computer Shopper isn’t important. He’s the customer now.
In any normal, sensible, functioning organisation, the writer in our example would politely advise Brian that sentences are allowed to end and his draft document should aim to include more words that are not acronyms than are. She’d say, “Brian, you know networks. Your knowledge of networks leaves me cowering in the corner, afraid that computers will take over the world. But you can’t write. At all. Your emails make grown men weep. Let me do the writing, you stick to connecting stuff with wires or whatever and everyone at GloboComm will be happy.”
No longer. Because Brian is a customer, the notion of different people being good at different things is abandoned. You’re not allowed to burn Brian’s document in your bin, laughing demonically. Not any more.
Now, none of this is to say that colleagues shouldn’t be treated with respect. But if you introduce the idea that everyone is a customer, then teamwork, collaboration and the sense that you’re all in it together at GloboComm, goes out of the window. You’ll be judged on how happy the customer was. Not on how good you are at what you do, but on how well your performance was perceived by someone who, by definition, is significantly worse at whatever it is than you are.
It’s too late, of course. Jed’s genie is out of the bottle. And because his idea sounds like it should be good, everyone now thinks that it is. But it really, really isn’t good. It’s a case of using entirely the wrong word and reaping havoc because of it.
If you don’t agree and think this is, in fact, a major breakthrough in how companies are run, then you’re wrong. I can say you’re wrong, because you’re not my customer. You’re probably someone I vaguely knew at university reading this on Facebook while Brian sorts out your email. Let him do his job. He’s better at it than you.