The Videotape of the Angry Customer

From Tim Wallace

One night I was having dinner with one of our largest customers to thank him for the business he gave us. We were talking about one of our core products and he said that he had to make alterations in the product after receiving a shipment. Since this was a built-to-order item, that was ridiculous. The alterations cost him money and wasted time. Naturally, he was not a bit happy about that.

I told him that I was very sorry and that we’d have a group of our people address the issues as soon as possible. He looked unimpressed even though I think it was obvious I was being sincere. “It’s not as if I have never told your employees about this,” he said, “but they don’t listen to what we say.” He explained that when he identified needed changes in the product or how it was made, our people would do what he asked, but then when he returned in a few weeks the problem had reemerged. “We ask again and again for things to be changed and the person we talk to nods his head but he doesn’t seem to listen.”

It occurred to me that probably only a few of our people had ever heard from this man directly, and even they may have never seen him as frustrated as he was over that dinner. So I asked him if I could send one of our staff around the next day with a video camera to record what he was saying. I’m sure he was taken aback, but I told him I was serious and that I thought this could help us both. We talked some more, and with a little bit of selling he agreed.

A few of my people went to see him the next day with a videocam. They asked him to be totally candid, to hold nothing back. For the most part he did. They shot thirty minutes in one take, and with a little editing, the video came out to be fifteen minutes.

Back at the plant, we put about fifty people in a meeting room. Someone turned on the TV, and there was the unhappy customer.

Their response was fascinating. Most people seem to have been genuinely surprised. They hadn’t spent much time with customers and they had probably never heard this type of strong, negative feedback. I suspect a few people wondered whether this was an odd case, but their eyes were glued to the TV. A few mouths actually dropped open. Of course, some people thought the customer was wrong. “He doesn’t understand.” “He needs to be educated.” “The reason why . . . .” But they were in the minority.

After the video, we had a discussion of how to fix the problems and keep them fixed so we would have a satisfied customer. People started throwing out ideas. As you can imagine, some of the ideas weren’t very practical. Nevertheless, it was a good discussion.

We showed the video to about 400 employees in total. Again, a minority was defensive. But just as many were saying, “We’ve got to do something about this. We’ve got to do something.” I think even the ones on the fence were afterward more likely to listen to any customers that we brought into the plant.

We did more videotaping. It cost virtually nothing. This wasn’t meant to solve all our problems, but it helped chip away at a serious barrier to improvement. This plant came to us through a company we acquired. That company had been a leader in its industry for a long time. The employees probably thought they had all the answers. They were the experts, skilled craftsmen. But they were also anything but customer-focused. It was probably “Sure, fine, now get out of the way so I can do my job, which I understand and you don’t. I’m the professional here; you’re an annoyance.” With this attitude, it’s hard to get off the dime and better satisfy your customer’s needs.


Primary Goals sits at the intersection of three core ideas about communication:
  • Leaders create vision by communicating a compelling future to their teams.
  • Teams create success based on how effectively the communicate and coordinate with each other.
  • Entrepreneurial ventures are successful only when they communicate value to people with a concern that the business can take care of
In all cases, it’s about Conversations for Committed Results.  That’s our Primary Goal.  



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