The Guy in the Next Cubicle? He Really IS Your Customer!

By Jean Marie Johnson

We all know it’s one thing to say that "everyone is your customer." But it can be a whole other thing to act that way when the "customer" is Juan in the cubicle next to yours...or Maggie in Benefits who you've had lunch with for years. You may be thinking:

"I’m not going to talk to Juan or Maggie as I do with THE CUSTOMER. I mean, we're all on the same team, serving the same external customer, aren't we? We're here to provide great service, create loyalty and see the results on the bottom line. So why do I "need to be MAGIC®" with my cubicle buddy or my lunch mate?"
As it turns out, for the very reason you cite, and more.

We hear your skepticism and we get it. In fact, it is well-placed, because MAGIC is expressed differently with colleagues and with people we know well. And yet, it's still MAGIC. So let's explore this further by putting a few stakes in the ground:

Actions Create Reactions

Like it or not, EVERYONE is your customer based on the simple, timeless dynamic that every action creates a reaction; energy begets energy; cause and effect. You cannot escape it. What others do and how they do it when they interact with you affects you, and vice-versa. This is true whether you are interacting with the check-out lady at your local grocery store, your next door neighbor, or Juan, who sits next to you.

Different Measuring Sticks

You may be on the same team, beholden to the same bottom line, but that cubicle wall and  difference in roles only begin to suggest the line in the sand that can separate you. You don't need to glance at the organization chart to be reminded of the fact that you have different masters to serve, timelines to meet, and measures to exceed. And they don't often align seamlessly, or "magically," you might say.

Familiarity Goes One of Two Ways

Familiarity breeds comfort which can go one of two ways: You either work well together—collaborate, give and take—because you are comfortable with one another. Or, one or both of you may have unreasonable expectations of what the other person should do for you. And that leads to conflict, tension, hard feelings, and a different kind of wall going up between you.

The TRAGIC Interaction

These three factors work together to create a unique dynamic with every colleague with whom you interact. Depending on that dynamic, you may welcome the opportunity to engage with a person, or you may wish you didn't have to go there. So let's say that you meet Maggie for lunch in the cafeteria as you usually do, and the conversation goes something like this:

  • Maggie: Hey, how's it going? Did you get that report done...the one you were so concerned about?
  • You:  Ugh, I'm almost there. I'm just missing the numbers from Paul. Once I get those, it should be a wrap.
  • Maggie: Great, because remember that special project I signed up for as part of my career development? Well, I need to include at least three employee interviews about reactions to the new healthcare plan options. I need to get these done, and I'd like to get one from you. I'll swing by later today...
  • You: (interrupting) No, Mags, not today, no way.  I have all of these emails that I'm late responding to, and I have to…'
  • Maggie: Oh, come on, you’ll whip those out in no time. What’s the big deal? It'll only take ten minutes or so. Besides, you know it's important; we need employee reactions so that we can...
  • You: (talking over her) Listen, I can't do it today.
  •  Maggie: Geez, alright then.  Whatever...

Understanding What Went Wrong

Ouch. That didn't work. You and Maggie are work friends. You enjoy each other's company, and yet this was clearly a tragic interaction. The outcome is that there's a snag in the relationship and now you two are in a stalemate in terms of Maggie's project. Let's take a closer look:

  • Action Creates Reaction:  Maggie's demand created resistance and perhaps bad feelings
  • Different measuring sticks:  You each have work to complete and deadlines to meet
  • Familiarity goes one of two ways: Maggie had unreasonable expectations about your ability to help her on her terms
Could this have gone differently so that the relationship isn't damaged and feelings aren't hurt? Could it have gone differently so that both employees' task needs are met—you finish your report, and Maggie gets the interview she needs for her project? Yes, and beginning with treating everyone at work as your customer, even your "work friends." Here’s how:

The MAGIC Employee Engagement Model

  • Make a Connection: Listen and empathize with what they are up against and how they are feeling. You know what it's like to be under pressure, uncertain how to proceed with a new assignment, or adjusting to a new manager, for example. In fact, you can probably relate to a whole host of feelings that a co-worker experiences because at one time or another, you've been there, too. That common ground can be the source of your empathy with co-workers.
  • Act Professionally: Use courtesy and be careful not to fall into tragic language. We tend to get a little sloppy with those we know best. And while casual is fine, being inconsiderate, ungrateful or disrespectful never is.
  • Get to the Heart of the Matter: In many, if not most colleague-to-colleague interactions, task demands are at the heart of requests for help or collaboration. Little wonder that those challenges become the source of friction between colleagues, as in  our example with 'you" and Maggie. The key to mastering this step in a co-worker interaction is for each person to put themselves in the other person's shoes. This way, they can understand the specific challenges of workload, measures, and deadlines they are both up against.
  • Inform and Clarify What You Will Do: Once you each have a sense of the other's reality, then productive collaboration, give-and-take can occur. When both people in the interaction are working from a MAGIC platform of attention to relationship and accountability for the task, they can work through who will do what, and by when. One person's needs needn't be completely sacrificed for the other's. That said, there will be situations where you will give more, and others where your colleague will do more of the bending.
  • Close with the Relationship in Mind: Don't forget to show your appreciation for their willingness to work things out with you. Human beings tend to have long memories when it comes to how they are treated. And this is no less so in the workplace, where support, collaboration and yes, teamwork make all the difference. Say "I appreciate what you did to help me out." Say, "thanks for having my back." Say whatever sincere words of appreciation come to you. And say them from the heart.
Let's see what this conversation might have looked like, if both you and Maggie treated one another as a customer.

The MAGIC Interaction

  • Maggie: Hey, how's it going? Did you get that report done…the one you were so concerned about?
  • You: Ugh, I'm almost there.  I'm just missing the numbers from Paul. Once I get those, it should be a wrap.
  • Maggie: Great, I know you were stressing over that one! Hey, do you remember that special project I signed up for as part of my career development? Well, I need to include at least three employee interviews about reactions to the new healthcare plan options. I need to get these done, and I'd love to include you. You'd be great because you've been on a few different plans over the years. Alright if I swing  by later today?
  • You: I'd really like to help you out, Mags, but today just won'’t work. I have all of these emails that I'm late responding to, and I have to finish them. I'm sorry… you know, maybe Juan would be willing to take my place. I'm happy to ask him.
  • Maggie: That's a good idea, but I am thinking that he's really new and won't have the perspective that a long-term employee does. Here's a thought...what about Friday morning? I'm dropping Jess off early at Day Care, and I could spend ten minutes with you before you get on the phones. Would that work?
  • You: Can you wait 'til then? If you can, then sure.
  • Maggie: Deal…and I'll bring you a latte. Thanks a million!
Same people, same situation, same challenges. But an entirely different outcome. That's because each colleague treated the other as a customer. They demonstrated respect for the relationship they have with one another, as well as accountability in terms of their own and the other person's tasks.

Internal MAGIC, A Standard to Live by: "Every contact my colleagues have with me is so appropriate that they want to have another contact with me."

When you remember that:
  • How we treat others influences how they treat us—You can choose to become more mindful of what you say, and how you ask for a colleague's help.
  • Like you, your colleague, who may be just a cubicle wall away, may be separated from you by an entirely different set of expectations, measures and deadlines—You can choose to let that awareness inform your requests.
  • Making demands on work friends "because we're friends" is an abuse of relationship—You can choose to operate in terms of what is fair.
When we create a work environment that reflects and practices MAGIC on the inside, we enhance real teamwork and collaboration by holding each employee accountable to the MAGIC Standard. By doing so, we can better serve the external customer, enhance loyalty, and reap the benefits on the bottom line.

Interested in reaping the MAGIC within your organization?  We're happy to help.  Just contact us at 203-226-7117 or

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.
Before and After
Before and After
Just one "tragic" contact can influence your customers' perception of your company (and their buying decisions). Listen to the difference MAGIC® can make.