Editor’s note: A version of this article appeared on Shep Hyken’s blog and is adapted here with permission.
There’s often a disconnect between organization leaders and customers. Leaders live in a customer-free zone where they don’t interact with customers on a daily basis and therefore don’t know what customers most desire. I had the great opportunity to interview John Brandt, the author of the new book Nincompoopery: Why Your Customers Hate You—and How to Fix It. I love the title of that book and its content, including his concept of the customer-free zone. Here’s my take on this interesting concept — or, should I say, problem.
The most important factor to customers is that they feel heard and cared about by the company and its representatives. Yet sometimes these representatives are prevented from doing the best they could do for a customer. That’s because the front line is constrained with policies, procedures, and rules created by people who don’t spend enough time interacting with customers. These “rule makers” are hanging out in the customer-free zone.
It’s time to eliminate these customer-free zones. The way to do this is to put people who aren’t normally on the front line, well, on the front line. Usually, this is leadership, but others in non-customer-facing jobs should have similar opportunities. I’ve worked with companies that require executives to spend at least four hours a month (sometimes more) sitting next to a support center rep. Even better is when they require the executive to take an entire shift actually delivering the support instead of just watching it happen. This gives the executive a dose of reality.
Another company I worked with was very small with only a handful of employees. They wanted a customer-focused culture and required that each employee spend a shift on customer service every week. As the company grew, the leadership stepped aside to make room for more employees to experience feedback, complaints and issues their customers were experiencing. It didn’t take long for them to feel disconnected before they made the easy decision to give themselves a shift on a somewhat regular basis.
Even better is when [companies] require the executive to take an entire shift actually delivering the support instead of just watching it happen. This gives the executive a dose of reality.
This isn’t anything new. I first wrote about this back in the 1980s — yes, that long ago — in my first book, Moments of Magic. Anheuser-Busch executives were required to spend at least one day each quarter with a field salesperson. They would ride along and interact with customers from grocery stores, restaurants, taverns—anywhere that sold beer.
Even though the idea has been around for a very long time, the term “customer-free zone” is new. Don’t get stuck far away from the realities of your business in boardrooms and executive offices. Stay out of the customer-free zone.\