In last week’s introduction to this series on Working Relationships, we threw darts at the myth that people at work know exactly what they need and how to get it. This simple dictum—a kind of “conventional wisdom—is simply untrue. People generally don’t know what they need, and so part of what we want to do when improving our working relationships is to surface exactly what we do need—and to understand why.
We begin shedding light on the conventional wisdom by first introducing some ideas about being a customer and being a supplier.
From the moment we get up in the morning we are, in one way or another, a customer. You may have your morning coffee while watching the local news, in which case you are a customer of your local cable company (on whom you depend to provide the signal), the owners of the channel you’re watching, and those who put on the broadcast itself. If you channel-surf from the news to, say, a sports or business station, then you become customers of those services and companies as well. Perhaps you stop to get gas on your way to work, in which case you’re a customer of Shell, perhaps, or Sunoco, and if you then take a toll road to the office, you’re again a customer—this time of your state’s transportation department.
The list is endless, and not just in a metaphorical way. From now until your very last day on earth, you will be a customer: dry cleaning, dentistry, movie theater, super-market, electronic store, plumber, airline, bookstore, hair salon, hockey team, university, emergency road service, doctor, manicurist…. There is not a day—not a single day—in which you can (or should) avoid this role.
Yet we never speak in these terms at work. We talk about having customers—those individuals and organizations to which our company sales products and services—but we don’t often think of ourselves as customers of each other, customers inside the company. We don’t imagine that the engineering department, for example, is a customer of the finance department when, in fact, engineering can’t do a thing—can’t purchase materials or hire staff or maintain equipment—unless the finance department approves the engineering budget.
Being a customer is almost like second nature to most of us; given that we have so many customer experiences—every single day, in fact—it should come as no surprise that it’s pretty easy for most of us. In fact, most of the time we probably don’t think of it directly, we simply expect certain things to be provided to us, and to be provided in ways that are easy, that cause neither difficulty nor confrontation. And most of our customer interactions are like that—we walk into some place (or log on some site) with a set of expectations and most times those expectations are met. So used to adequate (one might almost say “invisible”) service, we acknowledge it only in the most automatic ways—a “thank you” and a smile at most.
But for every time we’re a customer, someone, it’s worth remembering, is acting as a supplier, giving something to us. And it stands to reason that we are also suppliers, often and every day. We’re probably much less aware of it, but we provide things to others constantly, mostly without even realizing it.
At work this supplier role takes on very significant meaning, yet it’s a role we almost never acknowledge. Too often we complete work we’re “supposed to” complete, yet never really understand what it’s for or how it’s used.
If you think about it, there is a fundamental relationship between person-as-customer and person-as-supplier. There must be, or else why would any product, service, or work ever happen?
Next week: Defining the “Customer—Supplier Relationship”