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Believers Make the Best Customers

The quality of the customer either provides opportunities for growth, innovation and purpose, or strangles the organization and limits the future of its members

By Curt Coffman and Kathie Sorensen, Principals, The Coffman Organization

We commonly hear “Those with the best players win.” We agree and propose a corollary: Those with the best customers grow. How much does a poor customer cost you? The best customers make you better, and the worst destroy your value. However, most organizations spend their energy and money trying to acquire new customers rather than new, high?quality customers.

The Impetus for Innovation

A great customer is not an easy customer, any more than a great place to work is an easy place to work. The most demanding customers – those who want more for their dollar, more utility from their products, greater attentiveness to their concerns – are not necessarily bad customers. Our line?of?sight to those unique concerns creates the impetus for innovation and service; these difficult customers actually make us better. Embrace the believers, and then embrace their headache.

Some customers buy, and some customers are believers. The believers feel an intense connection to a person first and local entity second and a broader brand third. Believers see something different than regular customers do. They see the “what ifs” in you and your organization. The most meaningful encounters involve emotion, an indication the customer is seeing in 3D. They genuinely want to make you better, and, if we're honest, the believers are the authors of true innovation. Customer headaches become organizational headaches. The process of denial tends to institutionalize the problem.  

Embrace Their Feedback

When organizations have problems they don't know how to fix, they inadvertently decide they can't be fixed. The great brands of today have embraced customers’ feedback; instead of just hoping it will go away, they ask, “How can this become a key differentiator?”

One need not look further than: “Darn, I don't have a receipt….” Nordstrom embraced the headache of returned merchandise. “I want to use it—not spend all day installing it…” Apple combined both hardware and software. “I give up—this will never work…” Apple stores put you eye to eye with a “Genius” to fix your problem. “How do I get from home or work to the rental car?” Enterprise Rent-A-Car says, “We’ll pick you up.” “How will I ever find that?” Google allows us to search a topic and get instant access to information. (Remember the card files and Dewey decimal system?) “I hate to call for service.” At Ritz-Carlton, the customer's problem is owned by the first person it is told to, no matter their official title. “I'm bored with the games I have…” Game Stop allows gamers to trade in old games for new.  


Customers who help us to improve results make extraordinary partners. But customers who resist our products, advice, council, service, and representatives can make hostages of our people and diminish our culture. The pressures to be more efficient are helpful; terrorists are not. And when a customer holds your people hostage, you must free them or suffer the consequences.

It is counterproductive to have line?of?sight with your worst customers. Great organizations fire poor customers, rather than let them detract from their people and thus their culture and ability to compete. The best organizations systematically build around the best customers, forming partnerships that contribute to symbiotic growth. Line?of?sight with a great customer stirs innovation in both customer and service provider.

We have seen stellar examples of customer/vendor partnership. Toyota has consistently practiced great partnership with its suppliers, even to the point of locating them adjacent to their manufacturing plants. What constitutes a great customer? The list varies, of course, by the situation, but here are a few traits you can take to the bank: 

Opportunities for Growth

The culture of an organization is extremely sensitive to its customers. The quality of the customer either provides opportunities for growth, innovation, and purpose or strangles the organization and limits the future of its members.    

Curt Coffman is Senior Partner and Chief Science Officer of The Coffman Organization. Dr. Kathie Sorensen is Principal Partner, Curriculum Development of The Coffman Organization. They are co-authors of the new book, ‘Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch.’ For more information, go to

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