What Did Maslow Know About Customer Centricity? It Ain’t Happening!

Abraham Maslow is spinning on his grave these days.

So many mis-interpretations of his work and theories abound, no wonder he is being made responsible for a slew of problems in this world that don’t even belong in his ground-breaking Hierarchy of Needs.

The concept of the pyramid is quite simple — humans grow as our needs are met.  Got a roof over your head? Get married.  Happy Marriage? Go get a job.  Got a job? Keep it.  Secure in your job? Help others.  The chain continues to the level of self-actualization – a point where we are complete and happy.

The problem is that this evolution has hiccups and kinks along the way, some of which are not solvable by the majority of the population.  For example, people tend to stay in unsastifactory marriages or jobs for a multitude of reasons that don’t fall in the realm of this post.  Those people cannot evolve to a higher level until they fulfill their current one.  If you are unhappy with your job then helping others is not a natural instinct – you are more proclive to help yourself first.

I don’t want to turn this into some thesis on Developmental Psychology, just use the basic information to assert my belief: Maslow knew that humans cannot be customer-centric (at least most of us), he just never quite said it in those words.  Hear me out.

To be customer centric you need to be at the very least realized at the level of job security (second layer in the above pyramid).  If you are not realized with job security, you are not going to progress to the next level.

This is the barrier for organizations becoming customer-centric: employees that are not secure in their jobs.  Mind you, it is not entirely their fault (again, in most cases) since their main aim is not to please their customer but rather please their bosses.  In turn, those bosses are there to please their bosses, who are there to justify their bonuses — usually tied to efficiency metrics not related to customer effectiveness and customer-centricity.

Maybe a cynic way to look at the world, but tell me it is not reality in your organization.

The problem is that as much as you (as a worker or even a manager) wants to provide customer-centric service and focus, the people above you don’t get paid to do that.  Blake Landau describes how Zappos surpasses this problem (and in the process describes the politics of fear at work quite well for companies unlike Zappos) in her recent post.

Bottom Line: Organizations cannot be customer-centric until the top-bosses embrace the concept, get compensated for it, and enforce adoption across the organization.

Once the top-boss is customer-centric (read compensated to care about customers more than himself), Maslow assures us that the rest of the organization will be also Customer Centric.

What do you think? Ever had to decide between keeping your job and making your customers happy?

27 Replies to “What Did Maslow Know About Customer Centricity? It Ain’t Happening!”

  1. This is an argument I mentioned to Sameer the other day – were you listening over his shoulder? I’d argue whether employees were truly at Level 2 in the current environment so to argue that top management can ‘force’ is a non-starter. The key thing about Maslow’s hierarchy is that you can’t jump from one place to another but have to go through each stage, absorbing each layer as you go. It is a fair argument that holds water in examining psychological development. It might work where people are at Level 4 but right now there is no basis for making that a statement of fact.


    1. I was not listening over his shoulder – i am just getting tired of hearing Maslow being misused to justify something that can never happen. I do believe that all employees are somewhere in level 2 – having secured their physical needs for shelter and food, using level 2 (employment) to support their continuous fulfillment of level 1. I can see where your argument comes in, considering the ties between level 1 and 2, you cannot be at 2 unless level 1 is completely fulfilled, etc. Alas, I do believe that having shelter, food, and basic needs met propels you to the need to preserve that, thus you reach second level.

      Customer-centricity is not going to become a reality until employees inside the company adopt the mindframe. This is not about technologies, E2.0, SCRM, Social Kumbayah or anything like it. That is my pet peeve. We can talk about it all we want, but I have never seen it.

      I agree with you that you would need to be at stage 4 before customer-centric organizations become more real. I read sometime in the past that someone had adapted Maslow’s pyramid to corporations (looked it up but could not find it again). Even then, there is no way an organization is going to go self-less and become customer-focused. The rewards in customer-centric are on the journey, not the destination IMO.

      Maybe I should’ve written about Sasquatch and Customer-Centricity…

      Thanks for the read and the comment.


      1. Wait, are you saying that organizations have to be at level 4 to be customer centric? Speaking of misusing his work, Maslow never intended the Hierarchy to represent a fictional entity called ‘corporation’.

        A corporation consists of many individuals each at their own levels. Those that are customer facing typically represent people that are comfortable being customer centric. If there not, they should be replaced.

        I don’t buy that the entire company (and everyone in it) must be at level 4 before they can truly call themselves customer centric. The key is to have the right people manage customer relationships and stay tuned in.

        I do agree with your point about compensating top executives in the company to be more customer centric. But typically they are engaging the customer the least. Better to have them focus on hiring level 4+ leaders that are coaching their teams to be more customer centric.


  2. Esteban,

    Great post. This is directly in line with a question that has been spinning around in my head, and I haven’t been able to ask it, because there’s no real way to measure it.

    Is there a correlation between “self-centered” people and “self-centered” organizations AND is there a correlation to the relative success of each?

    If you can solve that problem, well… just solve it and we’ll sort something out. 😉


    1. Brian,

      ah, finally someone asking an easy question.

      The answer is 42.

      Now, go implement it.

      Seriously, this research I read about maslow for organizations had that answer. I will have to find it now… it bums me that there is so much freaking data, so little information.

      Thanks for the read!


  3. Interesting post, Esteban!

    I recognize what you’re saying. No need to repeat everything here. Just thinking though: What would happen if people loose their jobs? They don’t stop being customer-centric, do they? Perhaps I am optimistic about the human race, but I think customer-centricity has to do with the attitude of individuals as much as it has to do with the culture of the organizations they work for. Surely, organizations have to stimulate customer-centricity to make it happen in their organization, but organizations can’t force their employees not to be customer-centric, can they? And if people loose their jobs, there are still many other ways to be customer-centric outside the organization’s walls.


    1. Christophe,

      Interesting questions — i am going to say that a bias towards being customer-centric is inherent to each of us (or not), and that does not go away. Alas, same as intelligence for math, language, science, etc. is inherent to some of us, it can wither without the proper environment in which to grow.

      so, in an organization that is not focused on customer-centricity, and has no policies or interest in it, likely that these individuals will adapt to a lower denominator. Sure, some of them will persist – and you will often hear of Sam X at Company Y providing amazing customer service even if the company cannot do it, but how long can they last like that?

      the lack of customer-centricity focus in any organization translates into individuals being recognized and promoted based on their adherence to corporate culture (there is a lot more to say about this, i am doing that in the other post I am working on, responding this question in depth). Thus, anyone with any inclination towards customer service will not be rewarded appropriately and eventually leave or look for better, greener pastures for their taste.

      I am not going to name names, but some very famous changes in the social world this year were based, partly, on this premise.

      Anyways, will post the entire response with more details next week… but wanted to put a little teaser here.

      Thanks for the read!


  4. I think we need to do what we discussed in NYC – find that elusive organizational psychologist to get to the root of it 🙂 

    Is it Maslow? Is it Darwin? Is it Rogers (as in Mister)? Probably it’s a combination based on where the individual, the group, the org, the economy is at any given time.  

    But if the top of the Darwin chain embraces an attitude/practice because it keeps them at the top, then yes the rest or at least the majority will follow. 

    Whether Maslow or Mr. Rogers…feeling good because one is feeling appreciated, and kept in the loop is pretty universally a thing that makes people feel, well, better.  So if you can do that internally with employees and externally with customers & shareholders you could maybe reach that pyramid tip, and well, satisfy Darwinian impulses for power & glory as well. That’s my glass half-full answer.


    1. Janet,

      How about if it were all of them? There is not a single answer to the problem, just like there is not a single side to this issue. It is not about self-realization, or survival of the fittest, or being nice to your neighbor. It is simply about finding the balance between all these things.

      I used Maslow as an example, and lots of people exclaimed that self-realization is not possible. While true that Maslow recanted his premise later in life (supposedly never in writing), the fact remains — we need to evolve through phases to become better. And the same applies to organizations.

      That was probably the point i should’ve made, simpler and more to the point: customer-centricity is about evolutions, not revolutions.

      Thanks for the read!


  5. Hi Esteban,

    Just a thought – isn’t it about where the customers’ Maslow hierarchy, the employees’ one as well as the management’s one come together? Some kind of alignment that pushes it up a level for each one – and not being able to progress as long as this is not the case?

    I think there are interdependencies here that could be interesting to correlate. Basically customer-centricity would be about having people’s noses point in the same direction.



    1. Mark,

      Interesting question, and actually — it has been researched. I wish i had a better bookmarking tool (well, any tool actually) so I could refer you to it. In the hear distant past there was study that looked at Maslow from the perspectives of both parties to any interaction (if you look at the pyramid, the higher up you go the more you rely on interactions to fulfill your needs — you start by killing to survive and building shelter, end up in relationships – right?) and cross-referenced the stage of any of those two parties and the potential different outcomes. for example, if i am realized in level 2 going into an interaction with someone who is realized in level 3, what is the outcome? how would that be different if it were between two level 3 people? etc.

      I honestly think that you are have something in what you are saying (I don’t recall the specific conclusions of the study, obviously interactions were better among peers, more strained where one had more experience / exposure is that i remember).

      the way organizations can use that to their advantage? segment their customer base not on revenue or value, but on ability to engage in different levels, and use those to add value. For example, find the people that would benefit from being in a community versus those that would benefit more from being on the phone, etc.

      Anyways, great comment. Thanks!


  6. Esteban,

    Compensation (for everyone) has to be centered around increases in the value of the customer instead of tied to periodic based sprints to gain revenue. The way we do it now compensates sales people for going after low hanging fruit and no one else is compensated to help them. If everyone is tied to customer-based accounting, the goal is focused on the customer and not the individual. Just a silly thought.


    1. Mike,

      Silly indeed — so silly, it just might work. Could you imagine that world? Compensation tied to customer’s being able to do their jobs (not for measuring satisfaction in a biased survey that will always yield the wanted results) — impossible!


      Thanks for the read and comment.


  7. Hey E,

    I remember reading a book about “Postmodern Marketing” back in 1992, and an example of “bad marketing” was thinking that a person fell into one category and stayed there. He might work in the bank during the week but drive a harley on the weekend for instance. So we all cross categories depending on the context: I am sure for instance that some people are moderately secure at work, relatively well paid, but barely covering their material needs in total, yet they may have other aspects of their lives that are going very well, and are very satisfying, etc.

    Maybe it is the focus of the meaning of work that changes as we move. After all, as recent behavioural research has shown, people cease to become responsive to financial rewards after a certain level. Then there are also ideas relating to the satisfaction, the deep satisfaction one gains from just being able to do ones job very competently, to be “in the flow” so to speak.

    The pont about “length of tenure” and “organisational culture” that is “Open to Social” is a very interesting topic.

    For my mind the guys in P&G have this nailed a long time ago (5 years). They are truly awesome in the Open Innovation game.


    1. Paul,

      I know what you are saying, you are talking about the many roles or personas a person can have in relation to any one organization, as well as the many aspects we don’t know about a customer or a prospect (for example, someone may be a low-value customer in their personal life, but a high-value one in professional, or be our competitor’s best customer and ours at the same time, etc.).

      You are making a similar case that Maslow supposedly made towards the end of his life, but never in writing, that some people do’t need to be fulfilled in any one aspect to move to the next one. He felt that self-fulfilling and climbing the pyramid was not possible for the very large majority of the world.

      Indeed, even considering this — the argument I think still remains is that most people react the way they are compensated to do, and the same is said for their bosses. These compensation schemes are what gets in the way of being customer-centric in most organizations — regardless of everything else.

      Just my opinion, got no research to back it up though…



  8. Hi Esteban,

    Great thinking! I like your conclusion, but I might have taken a different path and it has to do with Maslow. His pyramid is too neat and orderly – something rarely found among individuals or among organizations.

    People just do not progress along the same continuum to self-actualization and sometimes skip levels entirely depending upon their values and their attitude. And self-actualization for me might look entirely different than for you. I’ve met more than one person lacking in the lower rungs of the pyramid and very much acting and living actualized lives to know that the pyramid is an imperfect generality.

    So, extend that thought to organizations and it still comes back to values and attitude that make the difference – it’s really a matter of culture. And you’re absolutely right – it has to be management that makes it happen. It’s their JOB to make it happen, after all. And right up to the top.

    Start with the mission statement – if customer is not the most important word in the mission statement (hopefully a short, concise statement), then management should re-think why the organization exists in the first place. And I also think customer centricity suffers when any person or department cannot think of their job in terms of how it relates to the customer, in which case their focus is on pleasing the boss.

    Those are my two cents.


    1. John,

      I like your statement “… still comes back to values and attitude that make the difference…”.

      Alas, it has to go deeper than the mission statement, since in most places that is just an empty statement. it has to come down to compensation, training, “onboarding”, etc. in other words, it has to be embodied in every employee and action.

      Then we can talk about mission, vision, goals, objectives and strategies.

      Just my two cents.

      Thanks for the read!


  9. Really great piece. I do agree that there is a connection between a company’s values, how they treat their employees, and the quality of service – BUT – companies are made of people and I have met people who no matter what their company values are – whether customer centric/employee centric or not – they are just plain old grumpy and others, again, no matter the centricity are just happy, nice, and service oriented.

    Attitude is greatly impacted by the company – for sure -but you also have to start with the right people and it’s amazing how so many companies don’t get that….


  10. Another thought, Maslow’s hierarchy would depend on the context – so that within one person multiple levels would be present based on the setting. For example with my strong ties I’d look at acquiring Esteem, whilst when I go online or go play football or hockey or whatever) I can be really obnoxious (to balance it out maybe?). What effect would this have on classification, and would you want to track that?


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