Sometimes we run into trouble when attempting to classify our interactions with other people. One of the most common mistakes is thinking of customers as only people who buy products or services from us. Over the years, I’ve realized that I need to view many others as customers and treat them accordingly.

On the business side, this includes actual customers, of course, but also vendors and partners. Even in my personal life, there are customer elements within my relationships with friends and family members.

When I was in high school, I was desperate to work for the local electronics store because I was crazy about stereo equipment. Eventually I got a job in the store room. If I was ever out on the store floor, I was meant to assist customers. One time, a customer came in and all of the sales people were busy, so I went over and asked how I could help. “It’s my husband’s birthday and I want to buy him a new camera,” she told me. I found her a nice kit that cost about $100 and would’ve been the perfect gift for the budding amateur photographer.

But suddenly, Robert, the top salesman, barged in. “I’ll take it from here,” he told me, essentially kicking me right out of the conversation. A while later, I watched her leaving the store with a pro-level Nikon camera, tripod and full bag of accessories that likely cost her $1,000 or more.

Robert was pretty pleased with himself for turning my humble little sale into a big one. But from my standpoint, he hadn’t done the right thing. All she wanted was an affordable camera with decent features that her husband would find easy to use. I could imagine the scene when he opened that fancy model and said (or at least thought), “Why did you spend so much on a camera?!”

Rather than meeting the customer’s need, Robert had met his own want—a big fat commission. From that moment on I was determined to approach customer relationships in a different way, by trying to understand what people’s problems were and how I could help solve them.

Ralph was the exact opposite of Robert. I met him many years after my time at the electronics store, when I was the IT director for a hospital. Anytime we had a problem with one of our systems, Ralph was the first vendor I’d call because I knew I could count on him and he’d make it his problem. If he didn’t have answers right away, he’d pull in the right resources and work diligently until he got to the root of the issue. I started to view him more like a friend, and we still talk a few times a year.

I’ve tried to follow Ralph’s example in my work at Access and in how I serve my internal and external customers. Instead of trying to make a dollar today, I want us to enhance relationships today. If our customers feel they can rely on us like I did on Ralph, they’ll want to keep coming back to us.

It’s the same in my personal life. I want to find out what people’s issues are and how I can help. My wife, Boni, didn’t go through stage 4 throat cancer. We went through it together.

If we truly have a customer-focused mentality, we should constantly be looking for ways to improve the lives of everyone we interact with, continue developing our relationships, and serve them as best we can. Because being a customer should mean far more than just buying stuff from someone.

Chuck Demaree

Written by Chuck Demaree

In addition to being a great storyteller, Chuck has a 35-plus-year background in healthcare and IT that’s definitely worth talking about. Not only has he worked in the consulting and vendor space with major information system providers, Chuck also has served in IT management at several large healthcare organizations. And as VP and CTO at Access, Chuck uses his rare combination of expertise to navigate R+D in the right direction.