Customer and supplier

by jean Marc Rommes on April 13, 2010

What is a company?

The honey bee comes mind.

The bee services the flower which pays it back with nectar.

It’s that simple.

A frequent perspective shift in textbooks makes us think that the bee gets the nectar from the flower and that in the course of that theft it happens to pollinate the flower so that the fertilisation is like an afterthought. That is not so.

May be the observation bias shift happens because in evolutionary terms we feel closer to the bee than the flower. (Also our palate may have more affinity with the honey).

However, that is neglecting the flower’s interest in this symbiotic relationship. Ecologically speaking, bee and flower are on par – they share a common interest: an exchange of product and service in a mutually safe relationship in a sound environment. Customer and supplier are closely integrated in that symbiotic exchange. Each needs to find a a benefit in the continued relationship. And each will design strategies that will work for both parties.

Losing customer focus

A group of people sit at a table. They have an idea. They talk about creating relationships, finding outlets for their products or services. Who will their customers be? Without clients, no business. Without flower, no honey. Without honey, no beekeeper (yes, there is that one, too). A marketing plan is drawn up. Relationships are established, contracts agreed.

Now, a structure is created, processes are put in place. A company begins to exist. Production starts, deliveries follow.

At some point, and often quite early on, something odd happens. Focus turns away from the customer and people spend more time and energy looking inwards, managing the hive, as it were. Lots of efforts are made to rationalise production, cut costs, improve processes, may be innovate and design grand plans for a great future.

Under the spell of the excitement (or the pressure of the shareholders, aka beekeepers) companies may forget about their customers. They forget the symbiotic relationships that created the business opportunity in the first place and that now link them in a common environment. They care about the beauty of their product and the profit they make more than about maintaining that positive interaction with their customers. Results deteriorate. Consultants may get called in. More restructuring happens, making life more difficult for the customer – the original co-beneficiary.

Customer first?

A company is first and foremost a set of relationships onto which structure and processes are grafted to make the interaction more efficient and more predictably for all involved.

Customers don’t come first necessarily. Nor second. Logically, and chronologically they appear at the same time as the company. They are an integral part of the deal and the company is only a successful company in as far as it manages to maintain these symbiotic interactions in its ecological system. Especially today, where many think that there seem to be more bees for fewer flowers.

When designing a new service process, or every time when we talk to a customer, we should have that guiding buzz in our ear.

The remarkable thing is how easily it is forgotten.

Be a bee, not a wasp.


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