The Customer First Award issue of Fast Company is always my favorite FC read each year. The selection of winners, honorable mentions, and “local heroes” always provides an insightful glimpse into the manifold goodness that is happening in business today. I’m particurly delighted that this year’s collection of winners has a particularly experiential bent, as many past winners were properly understoood as merely delivering outstanding service. Indeed, Manadarin Oriental Hotel Group, NASCAR, American Girl, Burton Snowboards, Life Time Fitness, and Mac Cosmetics largely dinstinguish themselves by staging compelling experiences, not delivering exceptional service. (And in the case of Life Time Fitness and Mac Cosmetics, arguably on the basis of guiding life-altering transformations).
Yet I do not believe that any of these companies have achieved their success by first putting “Customers First.” Instead, I see them as first and foremost pursuing Self Actualization, or putting Self First. Mandarin, like any better hotelier, has its own particular view of how (a luxurious) life ought to be lived, one without which there would be no loyal customers to put first. FC is correct in pointing out that NASCAR’s “technololgy and merchandising would mean nothing if drivers don’t deliver in person.” And make no mistake: these indispensible drivers are in it for their own fame and fortune. Having an American Girl Place just off Michigan Avenue in Chicago was the childhood dream of Pleasant Rowland; that is why it came into being. Burton’s “riders talking to riders” provides an outlet for rider-employees to share their snowboarding enthusiasm. (Aren’t the best retail associates always those who consider the wares they hawk an extension of self?) Life Time Fitness seeks to be “your neighborhood’s de facto community center”; no customer is crying for such. And Mac Cosmetics’ make-up artists? What could be more self-actualizing than business as art, to borrow a phrase from the title of Stan Davis’ most recent book.
A management mantra of “Customers First” without a self-actualizing motivation for being in business only leads to the kind of nightmarish encounters all too often suffered by the likes of Lewis Black (and us all). Indeed, putting “Customers First” should never be an end in itself, but only a means to some greater end.