The Mind Of The Customer

Introduction: The Mind of J. G. Reeder


I must have been around 8 or 9 when I contracted jaundice. It was awful. I can still remember the horror of watching my eyes and skin go yellow, watching everything I touched stain yellow,  feeling feverish all the time, unable to sleep, unable to relax. I have no idea how long I suffered from the disease, but it felt like months to me. To make matters worse, I wasn’t allowed any fried food, any spices (not even salt or pepper), any traditional sweets, any fats. All I can remember eating is boiled vegetables and a despicable skimmed-milk dahi. Yecch.

And of course I couldn’t go to school. Or see anyone or play with anyone. I had one regular visitor, an old crone who came in to the room I was quarantined in; she would come in, pour hot water into a silver bowl my mother gave her, drop some needles into the water, add some red powder, swoosh it around, mumble something completely unintelligible and then disappear until the next time. And that was meant to heal me. Hmmm.

No school. No friends. No food worth writing about. TV hadn’t made it to India. We had radio, we had a gramophone, but the supply of electricity couldn’t be relied on.

No nothing.

My dad, realising I must be crawling out of my tiny skull, gave me a break. He offered to bring me back as many books from the Calcutta Club as I wanted, every night; all I had to do was to give him the list. And so a habit was born. I read every day, all the time, sometimes nine or ten books in one day. Sleep was not easy in my condition, and I craved mental stimulation.

By then I’d already covered the traditional “child” spaces of Richmal Crompton and Anthony Buckeridge and Enid Blyton and Frank Richards et al; I’d already delved into the plays of Shakespeare and Shaw, the poetry in Palgrave, and most of what passed for modern classics then: Cervantes, Swift, Carroll, Twain, Dickens, Eliot, Austen, Hardy, the Brontes, you know what I mean. He then introduced me to the world of mystery/thriller/detective fiction, and I fell in love, starting with Chesterton’s Father Brown and Edgar Wallace’s Just Men. Phillips Oppenheim, Sayers, Baroness Orczy, Charteris, Christie, Creasey, Spillane, Erle Stanley Gardner all awaited me. Once I was through them, I could move further afield into humour and even adventure, and the family “holy trinity” of PG Wodehouse, Max Brand and Rex Stout. So no Alistair Maclean, no Hammond Innes, no Nevil Shute, not as yet. And a long time before I could be allowed to appreciate people like Guareschi’s Don Camillo, or Carter Dickson’s locked room mysteries. Before I could discover Ross Thomas and Ross Macdonald and Donald E Westlake. The list is endless.

Father Brown was fabulous, I can still remember reading about Flambeau’s dairy operations as if it were yesterday. And Edgar Wallace was brilliant. It was Wallace who introduced me to Mr John G. Reeder. Here’s an excerpt from a Reeder short story, The Poetical Policeman:


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John G Reeder had the mind of a criminal. He quietly went about his way solving the most outlandish crimes because he could think like a criminal.

I’ve heard talk about companies becoming customer-centric for decades now, and most of the time it’s been lipstick on a pig; too often, people find it hard to put themselves into the shoes of their customers.

To think like a customer, to have the mind of the customer.



The Mind Of The Customer


As a customer, there are two big things that are designed to discomfit, irritate, alienate, frustrate, sometimes even anger me.

The first is when a human being acts like a machine; and the second is when a machine acts like a human being.

There is nothing more frustrating than having to deal with a human being who quotes rules at you. Not regulations or laws. Rules. How often have you been faced with a situation where the person “serving” you goes all jobsworth on you: “I’m sorry sir, rules are rules. You will notice it is one minute past eight, and I stop serving at eight. If we make an exception for you, where is it going to stop? No sir, rules are rules.” [Usually said while inspecting fingernails, no eye contact, usually when there is no one else waiting to be served, and usually when the person could have served you faster than the time it took to spout the rules.]

Almost as frustrating is when machines act unpredictably. Like when the ATM dispenses cash to one person, chews up the card of a second, then reverts to business as usual after that. Or when the IRIS machine at Heathrow works/stops working/works.

Next on the list is the bundle.

What a delight. Not. This is where the company looks at what it’s got, knows what the customer wants, and more importantly, knows what the customer doesn’t want. But they need to sell what the customer doesn’t want. So what they do is they make a new thing, one which contains both. A bundle. You want to fly to Istanbul for the Champions League Final? Yes we have flights, but only ones that come with hotel rooms. You’re OK with that? Great, here are the flights. And five nights hotel accommodation. Yes, five nights. All our one-night packages are sold, sorry.

And finally, the Gold-Paved Cowpaths.

This is a particular modern specialty, where advances in technology are used to protect and fossilise historical business models. The best example I can think of is region coding on a DVD or game disk. Take what you did yesterday, and enshrine it by corrupting today’s technology. There was a time when there were different video standards in operation around the world, and it was not possible to play the videos of one region in another. PAL and SECAM and NTSC and all that jazz. The DVD threatened the way the industry worked, and so the industry chose to invest in technology to mimic the old world by creating new, artificial, constraints. Pave the cowpaths indeed. With gold. Pfui.

These are simple examples. In each case, try and think of the customer who would want what was being provided. A rule-bound human. An unreliable machine. A basket of products containing some stuff you want. And a lot of stuff you don’t want. Constraints placed on how you use stuff in order to prevent constraints on how they sell it.

Too often, people start off trying to think like customers, but soon they revert to their traditional ways of working and thinking and acting. Which is why historical monopolies find it hardest to think like a customer. And why airlines and banks and telecoms organisations struggle with engaging their customers.

If you want to understand something about the mind of the customer, then go read the Cluetrain Manifesto. It may be 14 years old now, but it’s a great place to start. [Disclosure: I have a chapter in the 10th Anniversary edition, but without any financial interest]. Here’s a quote from the book:

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A coda: Amanda Palmer and the Art of Asking


Some of you find it hard to engage with me when I write long posts. So I’m going to stop here. Instead of carrying on, I’m going to link to the video of Amanda Palmer’s talk at TED recently. She says more about engaging with people in one video than I could in a lifetime. Thank you Amanda, thank you TED.

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I’ve been thinking about the mind of the customer for years now, and trying to do something about it; it’s part of what attracted me to Cluetrain in 1999, part of what attracted me to what Doc Searls and crew started doing with VRM, part of what attracted me to the Maker Movement and to open source. It’s part of what attracted me to Marc Benioff and to joining

More to follow, sometime over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, please let me know what you think. Where do you see companies “thinking like customers”? Why do they succeed where others fail? These are the kinds of questions I want to tackle over the next few months here.


24 thoughts on “The Mind Of The Customer”

  1. Awesome post JP. It goes beyond the “Golden Rule” — not only do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but think like others–put yourself in your customer’s shoes and think like them. Visualize what it would be like to be them as you are helping them. (or not)

  2. I’ve dealt with my fair share of “Department of Motor Vehicles” personalities, as well as uber-friendly computers that actually giggle when they transfer a call, just to seem more friendly and personal.

    Customer focus became more than a buzz word over the last couple of decades. it became part of a standard. ISO 9001, and in medical device manufacturing, ISO 13485, both include requirements – rules – dictating customer focus and feedback. Yet, very seldom will you find an actual customer who feels that any company understands them. While I know for fact that within every organization, you’ll find passionate human beings who do think like customers, and want to be the voice of the customer on the inside. Unfortunately, that voice is often misrepresented, misinterpreted and misunderstood. As much as I strain to come up with an answer, I can’t think of a single large corporate brand that I could say actually thinks like or understands its customers. They look great on paper – they’ve got metrics, great feedback systems, customer service, and they even boast prestigious Malcolm Baldrige and JD Power awards. Yet, it takes at least 20 clicks on my phone to get to the right person – longer than the actual question itself.

    I don’t think it’s sunk in yet, and it’s perhaps still just slathering lipstick on a great big pig.

  3. I know just where you’re coming from! We are having this issue at the moment, the company we are dealing with owns a bridge over a river. We want to lay our duct over the bridge to save an expensive dig under the river. The river is very big and busy. The bridge is a railway track that is hardly used, especially on a Sunday. It will take us an hour to lay the duct. The jobsworths want lots of paperwork for HSE and their rules, which could take months to comply with and lots of money. Its the rules, the rules, the rules. Common sense has gone out of the window. The rules make no profit, no kudos, nothing. Why can’t humans just start acting like humans again?

  4. JP,
    I stumbled upon your blog a few months ago. I have been looking forward to them every since and read each one with fascination.

    I was around when the ClueTrain manifesto was still a developing document and had not yet achieved the iconic status that it has got today. Glad to know that you have got a chapter there now..will revisit.

    As a serial entrepreneur who sold his last India based domestic BPO to a UK company, I have often argued with my corporate customers that the call center agent is being made a machine and we are taking a human and making him do a job that he finds against his instincts and values as a human being. That is why the level of attrition is so high.

    The nail cleaning agent who cannot look you in the face hates doing it to you..but that is her job. She knows that her value to help a fellow human being but her corporate does not allow her to do that under the guise of rules. She hates herself at that point of time and wishes she could better for herself in her life, then having to bear this situations of conflict all along.

    See how SouthWest airlines do with their passenger announcements.


  5. As usual, a thoroughly humane and astute post, JP.

    Hope you don’t mind if I put in a plug for The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge, which is my solo follow-up to Cluetrain. Also The all-silo mobile marketplace, which visits another slippery slope down which customers are — really without anybody meaning to — inconvenienced by sellers.

    Until we equip customers with their own tools of independence and engagement, we’ll remain stuck in the wrong mind.

  6. @Doc nice to hear from you. I should have connected to Intention Economy in the first place! Meant to, did the VRM and then forgot. Say hi to the crew at F2C. Wish I could have been there.

  7. @venkat Next time I’m somewhere that Southwest flies, I will listen out. Your point about the nail cleaning agent is an important one, this is a two-way street. As customers we have to understand the motivation and empowerment (or lack thereof) of the people who engage with us, representing their companies or themselves. It all begins with treating others as humans, with dignity.

  8. @Chris one of the reasons I chose the name jobsworth is to keep reminding myself how easy it is to become one. As a worker. As a parent. Even as a customer. It took me years to understand why my teachers told me “rules are meant to be broken”. But by 26 I had grasped the difference between principles and legalism.

  9. @Christopher such shifts take time. But as we’ve seen with the music and film and publishing industries, some react well to change, some delay it, some pretend it’s not happening. And the consequences on customers are often dire.

  10. @charlie glad you liked it, appreciate the feedback. It’s something we have to keep learning to do. Screen sharing in service is a great way of helping this…..seeing what it feels like to be the customer….

  11. Ha, I often wondered why you wanted such a name! thanks for the clarification. I feel very sorry for all the other jobsworths out there who don’t realise what they are doing and wish we could start a common sense rebellion.

  12. @chris it’s a longer story. I wanted to replace all Microsoft in the place I worked with Apple. Project Jobsworth was the codename. (1) because jobsworths would try and stop me and (2) because it became a subtle signal to the worth of Jobs. The name kept reminding me of the “car park attendant” attitude so many people have, and so I latched on to it to help me remind myself never to become that person.

  13. That reminds me of a story I once heard about a car park attendant who did his job exceptionally well for 25 years. Rain or shine, he was there every day, always attentive and polite. Then one day he didn’t turn up. The zoo rang the council and asked them to send another man round. The council said to the zoo that it wasn’t their carpark and the zoo would have to find someone. Then realisation dawned too late, that somewhere was a man with millions of pounds of money sunning himself on a beach somewhere… he just did the job. Hundreds of cars every day over a fiver, coaches £30. He made a packet. Dunno why that came into my mind but thought seeing as how it had it might amuse you. The jobsworths weren’t doing their jobs very well were they? Outwitted by an ordinary hard working man.

  14. One of the key elements for me is temporal. Always remember that a customer is a customer when they want to be one and not when you want them to be, so you must be ready to serve them at all times.

    This has to be inculcated into every part of the business, not just the public-facing ones and I personally like to encourage people to focus not only on the positive, but actively to identify where things could go wrong because a disatisfied customer is a dangerous thing,

    And yes – they’re customers, never consumers, To some it may just be semantics but it both humanises and emphasises that your revenue depends on them.

  15. @chris love the car park story.
    @john I think people need to realise that a dissatisfied customer is a *much* more dangerous thing today than ever before. and all the customer usually needs is dignity of respect>openness>truth

  16. As always, a great article, JP. I also was fascinated by Amanda Palmer’s talk – truly amazed.

    I recently came across an article about something called ‘System-D’, (Robert Neuwirth: The power of the informal economy –

    It seems to me that ‘Customer Companies’ may already exist as a ‘process within a business’, but are treated ‘secondary’ to ‘normal’ operations, without wanting to sound too controversial(!). In ‘System-D’, Businesses are ‘selling’ according to a customer’s ‘terms’, and it will be interesting to see how this transpires over time, as these ‘System-D’ economies grow. Very interesting.

  17. Hi JP,

    Interesting topic. It peaked my interest because more often than not in my interactions with service providers I find myself asking the question “what are they thinking?”

    On many a boardroom presentation you will find “wowing” the customer as critical to their mission, but the reality is far from the ink it took to print those words. To me these are motherhood statements designed to dot the “I’s” and cross the “t’s” as opposed to a belief in a business driver.

    Someone mentioned Southwest. No doubt they have a great management but digging deeper I think the reason they are so successful and have such a great following is that the employees are empowered. Yes, they too have a rulebook but serves only to the extent that it is a guideline. It is employee owned and each employee takes ownership and responsibility for ensuring that customers are in fact: Wowed! Similar story with WestJet, a Canadian airline only a decade old, but giving Air Canada a run for their money.

    Talking about bundles – The bane of my existence. I have had so many arguments with my Cable and Wireless provider that I probably am blacklisted. Perhaps, the fact that the Telecom industry in Canada is a duopoly might have something to do with this.

    Pet Peeve: My bank offers a better rate to someone who is off the street, than I, a long-standing customer!

    Going out on a limb here, but I suspect that one of the culprits to not really treating customers as you would like to be treated is the fact that most large companies today manage for the “quarter”. Maybe it is difficult to justify the costs associated with such programmes. How do you show cause and effect in certain cases?

    JP, perhaps the answer to the secret sauce may lie in something much simpler -Our relationship with ‘a” Muriwallah, Puchkawalah, Panwallah etc. Why were we so loyal to a particular vendor?

  18. Understanding the mind of the customer is rooted in our fundamental shared humanity; in empathy and respect. When’s the last time we heard “empathy” discussed in a corporation? Or a business school? Or any kind of school?, for that matter. Stripping the complexity out of the customer service world, like Doc, et al did in Cluetrain, and focusing on the basics, like empathy and respect, is the key to successful interactions within companies and between companies and customers. Which means we have to create company cultures that respect people. Listening, leaders?

  19. In one of the links you give above, it’s got a similarly Poetical quote from ‘The Secret Of Father Brown’, although I prefer an earlier line, where he reveals his secret : “You see, it was I who killed all those people.” A couple of years after JG Reeder (sorry, I don’t think I’ve ever read any Edgar Wallace), but the same idea. We are customers. Every day, we are. The only challenge should be to think like other customers sometimes. And what they think and feel about things is all around us.

Let me know what you think

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