Recently, I wrote, “Solve The Damn Problem!” It’s generated a lot of interesting comments and discussion, but as he usually does, Mike Webster, challenged me with an intriguing question. He asked why companies get so easily distracted from solving the customer problem? I responded with some ideas, but I start thinking about it more–and not just in the context of solving customer problems.

Too often, I think organizational inability to be customer centric or customer focused is because for too many in our organizations, the customer is an abstraction. When we talk about customers, we tend to talk about markets, market data. We refer to customers as companies or enterprises, not TJ, Ardath, Jim, Babette, Charlie, Bob. We think of mass markets, of mass marketing, of volume and we lose the individual.

I think of my own frustrations as a sales person trying to get something done for my customers. When I think of a customer, I can picture the individual. I can see her face, hear his voice. I know who they are, what they want to do, what they are worried about. It’s not Microsoft, it’s Bill (no not that Bill, a different one) Jim, or dozens of others. It’s not AT&T, it’s Jeff or one of the hundreds of other people. It’s not Dassault, but Philippe, Bernard or someone else. It’s not SAP, but Nicholas, Malcolm and others.

With me–as with all sales people, our customers are people who work in enterprises, not enterprises. Yet too many within our companies, they have nothing to related to. They don’t have a face, they don’t know the voice. They haven’t seen the customer’s office, they don’t know the people. They know the customer as Microsoft which has bought this much, AT&T which bought this much, and so forth.

If we want to be truly customer focused or customer centric we have to know who our customers are. If we’re developing products, we have to see how our customers are using the products, the problems they are having, the things they’d like to be doing. If we’re in customer service, we have to know who the customer is–as individuals and what the problem means to them, it’s impact, not just what the customer is. If we’re designing contracts, we have to understand what our customers see and what they have to do to get the contract approved.

I’ve seen some organizations do wonderful things–they send teams of engineers to “live” with customers and walk in their shoes. They bring customers into their own organizations–not for executive briefings or to sell them something, but to share their experiences-good or bad. I have one client that’s lined their hallways with pictures of their customers and their stories–not the customer executives, but the swing shift foreman, the administrator in payroll, the DBA, the loading dock supervisor. You can’t walk from one office to another without seeing the face of a customer and a bit of their story.

Likewise, some clients want their customers to know who they are–not as a supplier but as people. Their pictures are on business cards, there may be a note in a boxed, “I packed this package for you,” or something else.

It’s hard to understand what an enterprise values, what it’s priorities are, what it’s dream are, what it’s worried about. It’s easy to do that with people. Somehow it’s easier for us to solve customer problems when we think of a real person.

As sales people we know this, we see it every day. We will be more effective, as will our companies, if we start realizing the customer is a human being. Once we start realizing our connections are with people not enterprises, it’s so much easier to be customer centric.