Horrible teams dislike their customers. They think their customers are stupid, lazy, and ignorant. To horrible teams, customers are infuriating imbeciles who completely miss the point of the product, but must be dealt with anyway. In contrast, tragic teams tolerate their customers. They think their customers are misguided, lazy, and imperfect. To tragic teams, customers are well-intentioned commoners who need a helping hand to take full advantage of the product. However, great teams love their customers. They love them like family, warts and all. True, deep love.

Horrible teams dislike their internal and external partners. They think their dependencies are vindictive and their clients are clueless. To horrible teams, partners are thoughtless fiends who block progress at every turn and should be avoided at all costs to achieve success. In contrast, tragic teams tolerate their partners. They think their dependencies are self-serving and their clients are needy. To tragic teams, partners are professionals working on conflicting goals who need to be met halfway. However, great teams love their partners. They love them like family, warts and all. True, deep love.

Does your team dislike your customers and partners? Does your team tolerate your customers and partners? Or does your team love your customers and partners? Are you horrible, tragic, or great? Look to your heart. I doubt you’re great.

You complete me

Why should teams love their customers and partners? Because their customers and partners are the reason the teams exist. Without customers and partners, there would be no success, no purpose, and no team. It’s really that simple.

Naturally, just because customers and partners are necessary doesn’t necessarily mean you have to love them. Horrible teams see customers and partners as a necessary evil. Tragic teams see customers and partners as a necessary part of product development. Great teams see customers and partners as their reason for being. Great teams live to make their customers and partners grow and flourish in the world we share together (like family).

Do you see it yet, or is all the talk of love too sappy for you? I’ll make it as plain as I can: if you perish without customers, if you fail without partners, then you’re stuck with them, like family. You can hate or tolerate your family, but that doesn’t make for a happy you or a happy family. However, if you love your family, warts and all, then you help each other and are committed to each other. While you might not always get along, you’ve got a much better chance at happiness together.

The customer is always right

What does loving your customers mean on a practical level? Let’s say your customers have a problem or seek a new feature. How do horrible, tragic, and great teams respond?

  • Horrible: If customers are a necessary evil, then you do the minimum that will make them stop bothering you. Then you can return to building the product that you think is right and that intelligent customers, like you, would value. (Unless they don’t.)
  • Tragic: If customers are a necessary part of product development, then you listen patiently to their issues and requirements, and you do your best to fix their top issues and provide features that address their top requests, as part of your overall product planning. (Cold and logical.)
  • Great: If customers are your reason for being, then any shortcoming of your product is a heartfelt concern. What’s wrong? What happened? When did it start? What were you trying to do? Oh, I see. How frustrating. Here, let me take care of your current concern right away, and then I’ll see to it that you never have that bad experience again.

Customers aren’t always likeable. They can seem dimwitted at times and do stupid things. Family is the same way. You sometimes wonder how we’ve survived as a species. Yet, even when family members (or customers) are annoying, you love them, despite their shortcomings. We wouldn’t be here without them.

When your world revolves around your customers, no ask is too small and no problem is too slight. You are here to help them flourish.

However, just like family, you don’t do everything for your customers. Sometimes you must give them what they need (tough love), instead of what they desire. That may be training, workarounds, templates, and examples. Sometimes you must deny them service, rather than enabling them to hurt themselves (security, privacy, and reliability).

Loving customers doesn’t mean going broke helping them, just as when helping family. You’re no good to your family if you’re broke. A healthy, mature relationship is one in which you love your customers, strive to understand them, and do everything you can for them, while keeping both of you thriving.

I'll be right behind you guys

What does loving your internal and external partners mean on a practical level? Let’s say your partners miss a deadline or have a last-minute request. How do horrible, tragic, and great teams respond?

  • Horrible: If partners are a necessary evil, then you use any excuse to demand more from them, or rid yourself of their trouble, so that your product can ship as originally intended. Those clueless jackasses will eventually realize they missed out on your inevitable success. (Until you fail.)
  • Tragic: If partners are a necessary part of product development, then you negotiate requirements and dates with them, agree on a contract, and try your best to balance their needs against your own. (Cold and logical.)
  • Great: If partners are your reason for being, then their problems are your problems. What do you need? How can we help? What works the best? How long can you wait? Can we give you a workaround until then?

Partners aren’t always likeable, yet you love them like family, despite their shortcomings. Like family, you can’t accommodate every partner request. Sometimes you must push back (tough love) so you don’t enable a partner’s terrible mistake. But you’re always sensitive to partner needs and work to achieve success together.

That's a tragedy right there

I’ve spent many columns talking about dealing with dependencies and caring about customers (Quality is in the eye of the customer and “Customer dissatisfaction” from my book). Why is this column so infatuated with love? What’s so tragic about tolerance?

Tolerance is good. It’s constructive and pragmatic. It can bring you success or, at the very least, save you from failure. What’s tragic about tolerance is that it gets you close to greatness without reaching it. It engages the mind, but not the heart. Without the heart, we fall short of reaching our potential.

Empathy is limited when you engage the mind and not the heart. There’s limited connection and passion. How can you show customers and partners that you really care, and you really get it, if you don’t involve your heart? You can’t, and that’s tragic.

What the world needs now

Maybe your team is horrible. Maybe it’s tragically tolerant. But you can be great. All you need is to love your customers and partners truly and deeply. Make your customers and partners your reason for being, because they are.

It’s tough to do—I get it. Not only is it mushy and sappy, but you have to make your world revolve around people beyond your control. People that misbehave and sometimes don’t seem to care. Yet you must accept them as they are, like family, and love them anyway. It’s worth it to achieve greatness.

When you love your customers and partners, something amazing happens. They love you back. Maybe it takes a while for you to gain their trust. Maybe there are bumps along the road. But if you stay true, and your love stays strong, then customers and partners come around. And when that love is mutual, it’s rewarding, it’s lasting, and it’s magical.