by Michael Thiessen
Capitalism – for all of the wealth and prosperity that comes with it – has many flaws. One flaw, however, is often overlooked. Capitalism causes us to stamp out uniqueness and to treat everyone as if they were exactly the same. The industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries led into the mass market revolution of the 20th century, which led us to where we are today, in the 21st century.
Along the way these revolutions significantly changed how we operate our businesses and how we treat our customers. Over time we have been trained to view other human beings as faceless numbers on a spreadsheet. In this way it has robbed us of our ability to serve each other’s unique needs. It has made it more difficult for us to love and serve our customers as individuals. But this trend is reversing. Now we have a lot more ability to serve each person’s specific needs and treat them like a fellow human, while still running a successful business.
The Mass Market and Taylorism
The mass market has profoundly shaped our society – not just by creating wealth and boosting productivity, but by changing how we think. It all started with a man named Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose ideas on what he called Scientific Management paved the way for the mass market. His innovation was simple – to apply engineering practices to the business itself.
The goal was efficiency and reliability. To reduce costs and improve profits. To get there, workers were treated as interchangeable, replaceable cogs. Managers were there only to divide up the work and enforce the rules. All of the products had to be the same because it was too costly to run and maintain all of the extra machines necessary to have variations and options.
“Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black” – Henry Ford
But making products that were all the same meant that you had to sell products that were all the same. Since all of the marketing channels were the same – the same television channels, the same magazines – marketing was also mass produced. There was no room for your specific needs, desires, or wishes. We just couldn’t produce things cheaply enough (yet) to customize it for you. Now, all of this seems quite obvious, but it’s not. It’s only “obvious” to us because these ideas have so permeated our culture. This focus on efficiency only started in recent history.
Reversing the Trend
Today, however, the story is a bit different. Over the 20th century our productivity and wealth increased so much that we can now offer ever more specific and personalized services and products. Advertising is no longer dominated by the mass. Instead, highly targeted and highly relevant advertisements are presented to us, ads that we are much more likely to care about. Instead of only 3 channels, we have millions of channels through YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, and other platforms. We don’t have to create shows for everyone, now we can create shows for sci-fi geeks or high-school girls. Instead of a few types of beer, we have thousands of craft breweries popping up all over the place. Now it’s possible for us to meet the unique needs of every single human, while still making a profit.
So here’s the deal. We can continue to run our businesses assuming that everyone is the same, or we can embrace the fact that people are unique and meet look to meet their distinct needs. If you decide to embrace people’s differences, the next step is figuring out how to serve each person uniquely, and what that might look like for a Christian business owner.
Serving Each Customer Uniquely
One of the most powerful spiritual tools that we have is prayer. We can pray for our customers and their unique situations and struggles. Gary Gehiere, who runs an accounting firm, shares how he uses prayer to witness to and serve his customers. “I see my business more as a calling than a ministry. I try to meet the needs that present themselves almost daily. Where spiritual tools are more appropriate, I reach into my toolbox and usually choose prayer.” Prayer is not something that can be mass produced. There is no way to increase the “efficiency” of prayer. All that you can do is pray for the specific needs of a real person, and that is what draws Gary to it over and over again. “Meeting real people with real needs is a special opportunity for all of us, but in business, you have more control over your time and agenda.”
You also need to be careful when praying for others. Religion and spirituality can be a touchy subject, both morally and legally, so you need to make sure you are doing it in a respectful way. “A word of caution – make sure you do not violate professional ethics or unduly use your influence or authority. Praying with a client may be some of the best counsel we can offer, but always get permission before doing this.”
A Tale of Two Drastically Different Clients
Gayle Goossen shared an incredible story of just how different clients can be, and how her business treated them differently.
One was honest, the other not so much.
“Early in our day there were two clients. One was on the brink of bankruptcy, and while the work we did for them would help them build their sales, they didn’t realize until after we had finished the work how bad their finances were.
So they called us, talked it through, and we set up a monthly payment plan for a very small amount, and they paid it off over a few years. They are still in business and we continue to cheer them on. They were honest. They dealt with integrity.”
This client needed some help with their finances, so they worked something out. Gayle took their unique situation and figured out a unique solution for them.
But what about the second client?
“Another business, very profitable, used us to do a bunch of projects, then they turned around and said we didn’t deliver the services required and they weren’t going to pay. They purposely hired small businesses with little power, got the work they wanted and then walked.”
It was only 6 weeks after this client left that Gayle got a call from a different marketing agency. This no-good client had already done the exact same thing again, and the new marketing agency wanted to join forces and sue.
But it wasn’t worth it, so they just let it go:
“Neither of us had the money to fight this. And it would have ended up as “he said, she said”.”
Clearly, it wouldn’t have made any sense for Gayle’s business to do the same thing in both situations. The clients were completely different, and so they took completely different courses of action.
We Can Walk Away
More customers mean more business, so it’s good to take on all the work we can get. But sometimes it’s better – for everyone involved – if we can just say “no” and walk away. The second client that Gayle worked with is proof of that. Gayle could have pursued legal action against the no-good client, but it only would have cost their business more time, money, and stress. Even though we are striving to love and serve our customers, we can walk away. Sometimes we just need to walk away because we know that the relationship won’t turn out well, and we can save everyone the trouble. Chris Klaassen runs a construction company, where he had to turn down a multi-million-dollar deal:
“A few years ago I was asked to construct a multi-million dollar Buddhist temple. I spent lots of time justifying it, telling myself and others I would give the profits to God.”
Eventually, he realized that he would be building a temple to a false god, so he called it off. Doing business in a way that would displease God simply wasn’t worth it to him. If he only realized this halfway through the project, it would have been much worse for both him and his client. Other times we say no because we don’t want to encourage or participate in illegal and immoral behaviour. For Chris, it’s clear what the right decision is:
“I’ve also been asked multiple times to do things without proper permits, for cash, etc. I simply tell people that I won’t work that way.”
We shouldn’t treat everyone the same when we provide services to them. In the same way, we also need to look at each situation differently when we decide who we do business with. This, too, is part of how we can love our customers.
Capitalism, through the mass market, has changed the way we run our businesses. We tend to focus on efficiency, and often disregard the human element. In the past we couldn’t tailor our products and services to each specific person, and even today many things are still too expensive to do unless we mass produce them in this way. But today we can choose to do better at recognizing the uniqueness and distinctness of each of our customers. We can choose to serve them better by taking into account their unique situation, and providing a unique solution.
You can read Gary’s full interview here: Letting God Work Through Your Failures
You can read Gayle’s full interview here: When People Are More Important Than Profit
You can read Chris’ full interview here: Turning Down a Multi-Million Dollar Deal
Michael Thiessen is a reclusive software engineer by day, but by night (and sometimes early morning) he interviews Christians about how their faith radically changes the way they do business, and writes about business from a biblical perspective at Marketplace Disciples.
Get the free resource guide filled with the best blogs, podcasts, and books to help you run your business in a biblical way!