What if Customers Were the Service?

Fast Company
Below is a post I wrote circa 2007 for FastCompany.com where my contributor role was to write about customer conversation. In the early days of blogging we had quite the discussions in the comments section — an example of collaboration in thinking together about a topic.

Collaboration is one of the three themes I will highlight in my bold talk at Inbound (tomorrow).

Thanks to technology, marketing and business have become more complex. Complexity requires, actually demands, collaboration. Our skills and experience are not just additive when working together: they are exponential. Because in many instances what has the most value has not been done before, that collaboration looks more like co-creation — the ability to work together in support of a common goal.

Today's reblogs and shares, the focus on filters and obsession with search and quick wins completely miss the one aspect of content marketing success that has human achievement as its highest realization —

  • from putting in market useful tools that help customers do what they want to do (see for example Facebook's Jonathon Colman build better content#)
  • to producing experiences that uplift, inspire, and instigate audiences to be better (this is the gist of what Kevin Spacey was saying in his keynote about sending the ladder down)

What do they miss? They miss involvement — and that is what collaboration done right is all about.

“Tell me, and I will forget.
Show me, and I may remember.
Involve me, and I will understand.”

[Chinese proverb]

So this was my post at FastCompany.com circa 2007 (as you can see from the device I will be talking about):

I walked into my local Best Buy store because I needed technical assistance with my Palm. What I didn’t know is that they don’t support the device, they just sell it. For support, the nice albeit a bit detached girl at the Geek Squad desk said, you need to call the Palm customer service.

Visions of long queues at a busy 800-number or voice-recorded prompts flashed in my mind. How is it possible that the most important part for customers — service — is left to the customers to figure out? I did not know how true that statement would be until I met Jim.

Jim is the gentleman who was waiting for his laptop and recovered hard drive when he noticed I was about to step away from the counter without receiving help.

Maybe it was the shoes I was wearing that caught his attention, or the accent he couldn’t quite place. We started talking. And in the course of our conversation, a long one in which we got absorbed, he proceeded to help me with my Palm problem.

“I have one too,” he said, “It’s another model, but I know what happens when it freezes like this.” At that point we were still at the Best Buy customer service counter. Other customers were coming and going. A nice young lady who was picking up a piece of equipment talked with us about her heritage — Japanese and Italian. She was quite striking and very cordial.

Meanwhile, nobody was getting restless, nobody complained about us standing right in front of the counter. Many joined the conversation, even as distant listeners.

People can’t help it; other people are the subject of constant fascination. Different, interesting, and engaging are all words I would use to describe the experience. And we looked quite at home right where we were.

So the thought occurred to me. We were talking about innovation in business and how innovation is mostly about looking at the same things and seeing something different.

What if Best Buy were to provide space to encourage those conversations? What if instead of just having a counter where, by necessity – being short on staff, long on help needed – they placed a nice set of armchairs and small tables nearby.

Customers could sit down. Some coffee company could provide coffee and snacks. People dropping by after work might enjoy a little something while waiting.

Most importantly, what if they helped customers talk with each other by putting the space there for them to do so? Jim solved my Palm problem and I walked away having made a new friend and feeling good about Best Buy.

Instead of feeling let down, I now have a warm and fuzzy feeling about the store where I had such a good experience. Never mind that it wasn’t the staff to provide it. I had it anyway, and it’s associated with the store.

Let’s take the idea a little further and think about what would happen if Brian, another customer, stopped in for a repair and during the wait learned that Jane, also waiting, knows everything about digital cameras. He has been thinking about buying one, but he feels skittish about asking the store staff. He doesn’t want to be sold to just yet; he wants to buy after taking his time exploring options.

They strike a conversation, and now Bill writes down a list of features he wants in a camera. Jane just asked him how he was thinking of using it adding stories of her purchases and what she learned from them.

We all love to learn, we all hate to study and many of us dislike researching, especially when we feel harried in the store.

The business gets to keep its costs down by maintaining a fixed number of geeks on hand to help. The customers get the help they need by receiving assistance also from other customers. And the store now has the potential to sell more, all wrapped up nicely in good will. But wait, you say, what if I’m the only one there on a given night?

Word of mouth travels faster than information on fiber optic cable, you could:

  • Wait until someone else arrives in for help –- I was there probably short of two hours and the flow of people was constant
  • Self select as the “go to” person for certain types of devices and volunteer help while you’re there

People love being helpful and there isn’t always time to meet new people by going to networking events. The businesses that can help lower the barriers to entry to make conversations among customers happen, win.

Now, how about a good cup of coffee at, you guessed it, Best Buy? I was thinking about purchasing a digital camera…


Take away the construct of business hierarchies, the corporate politics, the managers who fail to notice and to communicate and what you find is people helping people get something done.

Business is very good at managing scarcity, and no so good at dealing with abundance. Thanks to technology and social networks, it is now on the receiving end of the latter.

As professionals, even when we are highly specialized, we struggle to keep up with the rate at which knowledge is changing — someone, somewhere is doing somthing today that will probably disrupt and change what we know.

Commitment to collaboration is about realizing the potential of our ideas, businesses, and life.


Valeria is an experienced listener. She designs service and product experiences to help businesses rediscover the value of promises and its effect on relationships and culture. She is also frequent speaker at conferences and companies on a variety of topics. Book her to speak here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *