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Customers Included: Book Review

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I'll confess I shelved this book for a quite while after receiving a copy in the mail from its co-author, Phil Terry. It was the title and subtitle that provoked the initial--and as it turned out, mistaken!--reaction: this is not relevant to me. Customers Involved: How to transform products, companies, and the world--with a single step, cowritten with Mark Hurst, seemed a far cry from my own interests. I'm not in business, am I? I don't have a "product," "customers"...

Still, I cracked the book open finally because I admired Phil Terry's work in quite another field. He founded, and heads, a loosely-knit organization called Slow Art Day, right up my alley as host of the "One Hour/One Painting" series that encourages, precisely, the practice of slow looking. On Terry's Slow Art Day, once a year, small groups gather in galleries and museums in currently almost 200 locations throughout the world to take a slow, mindful look at the kind art works we usually do no more than glance at in our haste to see everything and get on to whatever's next. A man who could conceive of this idea, I thought, must have something of interest to say in another field...

I was no more than a few pages in when I realized that of course I do have a "business" of a sort, though not one that's primarily about making money. And I do have "customers"--those people I encourage to come and join me as I sit in front of a single painting for a full hour, in a blend of the time-tested practices of meditation and contemplation. So I found myself engaged in the book in an entirely unexpected way, urged to think more consciously about what I do, how I approach the participants in my sessions, and indeed how I conduct those sessions, whether or not to the satisfaction of their expectations. Was my "product" serving them, as I had unquestioningly imagined? Or could I serve them better if I understood more about the reasons they were attracted in the first place? How could I appeal to their return business? I soon discovered that I had much to learn from this book that had landed in my hands. There are no accidents!

It is, I discovered as I read on, a truly excellent book. Its thesis is a simple one: businesses thrive when they listen to their customers; they wither when they fail to do so. Co-authors Hurst and Terry work through their consulting company, Creative Good, to help existing businesses improve their practices by "directly observing their customers, discovering their unmet needs, and getting the entire organization behind the effort." The "listening labs" they recommend as the most useful tool are organized not around focus groups, whose value they do not dismiss, but regard as limited; but rather around intense, one-on-one, hour-long sessions with actual people, customers, who are encouraged to be honest about their experience with the company or the product. The most reliable information, they stress, comes from observing what customers do, rather than from merely hearing what they say, which can often be misleading.

There's plenty of fascinating detail for the reader, here--the kind of analysis that makes for useful sales talk. What kept me reading, though, was less the analytical detail than the stories it derives from, stories of remarkable business successes, and remarkable failures; of visionaries (Steve Jobs) and functionaries; of dreams fulfilled and the kind of absurd missteps that lead to disaster. Hurst and Terry are good story-tellers, and seem to relish the telling, in writing that is crisp and to the point, avoids the kind of repetition that too often plagues the tomes that line the "how-to" shelves in the bookstore. Clocking in at less than 150 pages (without the notes), their book is commendably short and to the point. I myself value brevity. I hate to have my time wasted by self-importance and hot air. And despite my initial reservations, my (entirely misperceived) disinterest in how businesses are run, I came away with a big, useful piece about myself and my own practices. For anyone who actually hopes to run a successful business, how much more useful this book would be.

Eventually, it's all about service. Service, as Hurst and Terry make clear, must precede profits. If you're not doing something of value for your fellow human beings, your might as well forget it. So when you think about it, it's all about Right Livelihood. Customers Included is actually, also, a good Buddhist read!