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.
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:
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:
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.
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 salesforce.com.
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.