How to Engage Customers for Change

Customer-Centricity in Solution-Focused Change Processes

by Susanne Burgstaller

Where are the green people?

Solution-Focused change agents need to engage the people in the organisation as “customers for change”. How can this be achieved?

Customer-centricity has always been central to Solution-Focus.

Customer-centricity has always been central to Solution-Focus. Steve de Shazer, the inventor of Solution-Focus, is reported to have stormed into a seminar room and – without saying a word - written on a flipchart: “What does the customer want?” My colleague Ferdinand Wolf still has the flipchart to prove it! What Steve de Shazer meant was that the therapist needs to help the client to define his or her wants, and then support her steps towards realizing them.

In my field – Solution-Focused organisational development, change and transformation work - customer-centricity is even more central. I distinguish two directions:
  • The “external” customers or clients in the market. Clearly any organisational change or re-design must always put their needs and concerns centre stage.
  • The “internal” customers or stakeholders who need to be found and engaged for any change or transformation to even be possible. Equally important, but often ignored, they are the focus of this article.
What is a “customer for change”?

A customer for change is someone who wants something to be different and is prepared to do something about it.

The second part of this sentence is vital, since without doing something different, change will not occur.
In the early days of Solution-Focus, the distinction was made between “customers for change”, visitors and complainers. The idea was that only customers for change were genuine customers with whom the work could be done successfully. Later, Steve de Shazer abandoned this distinction. He had come to the conclusion that it is much more useful to consider everyone a potential customer for change. Treating people as such makes it much more likely that they also behave in that way.

This is clearly more helpful than to assume that everyone will resist. In most change situations some “customers for change” can be found quite early on. My colleagues Mark McKergow and Jenny Clarke call them the “green people”(1): their traffic light is set for green as far as the change is concerned. So that is step one: spotting the “green people” and harnessing their readiness for action.

However, in large organisations we are confronted with many, many diverse people. In such situations it is highly necessary to consider the different attitudes and needs of the many and often diverse target groups we are addressing. We can´t treat everyone the same.

So how to deal with those whose traffic light is still on amber or even red? In short:

How do we deal with people so that they become “customers for change”?

The first step is to empathize with and respond to their natural human needs and motivations. Let us imagine Lisa, a typical staff member: Under which conditions might she decide to transform her attitude and behaviour into that of an active change participant?

We can safely assume that this will be the case if some or most of the following conditions are fulfilled:
  • She is informed about the change. Ideally early, regularly and openly.
  • She understands the reasons for it.
  • She trusts the people who propose it.
  • She can imagine what might be different after the change
  • and what this might mean for her.
  • She can see that it might make a positive difference to her life, her team, her clients and her organisation.
Under these conditions it is reasonably likely that she will participate in the change process – provided that she is given a chance to do so. The next step is to take into account the differences between functional groups: Controllers, IT or sales staff will most likely have a different culture, concerns and attitudes compared to sales or production units. And then generational differences might be prevalent.
So, your task as a change agent is to ask yourself – as early on in the process as possible:
  • groups of potential “customers for change” do we have in the organization?
  • What are their questions, concerns, hopes or fears?
  • Which differences between them make a difference to their attitudes to the envisioned change?
  • What do they stand to gain or lose by the change?
  • Do we already have some early customers for change? If so:
  • what small steps can we take to bring them on board?
Good luck with engaging your customers for change – and increasing their numbers!
Susanne Burgstaller has worked in organisational development and change for nearly 35 years. She writes about Solution-Focus, organisational development, leadership and change, and mentors agile and change coaches.
(1) McKergow, Mark and Jenny Clarke (2007) Solutions Focus Working. 80 real life lessons for successful organizational change. SolutionsBooks (Cheltenham / UK).

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