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Shoot the Messenger - and Kill a Customer?

November 10, 2011

Apple was the surprising bad example that popped up this week that helped me answer a common "Customer-First" question.

UPDATE 11/11/11: It seems more stray bullets are being recklessly fired around by Zynga, the popular Facebook game producer. What were they thinking? Read about it here.

I'm always asked about how the management of employees and internal resources impacts a customer. For many, there is not a clear connection and you often see large businesses perfectly content to expend huge effort on making the customer experience better, but assuming that mismanaging their people not directly on the front line has no customer impact.  This week I stumbled across a relatively minor piece of news from PCWorld about Apple that provides a great example. You can read the full piece by Tony Bradley here.

What Happens When you Kill the Messenger?Basically, Apple let go of a security expert considered to be at the top of the heap where Apple products are concerned because he broke one of the developer rules in place in order to expose a security flaw. Put aside the odd debate started by the usual fanboys that "Apple doesn't have  a security problem!" and consider the customer - especially the future customer.  Rules are rules, yes, but in this case if the security expert was breaking the rule as the only way to demonstrate a proof of concept that was in the best interest of the customer, then what does that say about his employer?  As one commenter on the article noted, Apple was putting their "security ego" first.

This creates a long-term problem for Apple. If your customers are one day adversely affected by a security flaw that could have been prevented, and the reason it was not prevented had to do with your rules followed by the developers on your security team, then isn't the most important thing to learn here is that the rules need some work?

Of course you can discipline someone for breaking a rule, but in this case, the "Customer-First" response might have been something to help avoid a negative customer impact later. There are other forms of discipline that leave that resource in place and demonstrate that the story is not about control and egos, but about customers. I would even recommend enlisting the "rule-breaker" into a process to re-develop the rules so that resources that favor customers are not wasted.

It is often these "small" and "internal" things that get overlooked in the "Customer-First" approach, but can lead to the biggest impacts later on. Apple has a mountains of "forgiveness capital" earned over the years, but that is capital you prefer to not have to borrow from.