4 Ways to Center Your Customer

As Seen in Erin Brockovich

Katie Burkhart
Feb 26 · 4 min read
A cup of coffee on an old dish

I rewatched the movie the other weekend. I hadn’t watched it in a while and had only seen the edited for TV version. (Man, does Erin swear a lot).

For those who don’t know the story, Erin is a single mother looking for a job so she can take care of her three kids. She ends up insisting her way into a job at a law firm where she shrewdly uncovers that a big corporation (PG&E) has been poisoning people through contaminated water. In the end, she and her team win the class action lawsuit with a settlement of $333M.

What caught my attention as I alternated between paperwork and *actually* watching the movie was Erin’s ability to center her people — and just how good she was at it.

As a purpose-driven organization, you matter to someone. That could be a customer or beneficiary, or even a community. That someone should sit at the center of what you do.

Let me walk you through four ways Erin nails it:

By getting to know her person, she finds more people.

Erin starts with a client file. To get more information and a better understanding of the case, she goes out and meets with the client. Meets her. In person. At her house. She takes the time to get to know her and everything going on with her and her family. This allows Erin to find other people who have been affected by the poisoned water — hundreds of them, in fact.

What if we started to reach out for actual conversations to better understand our people? I bet that would encourage referrals, identify new inroads, and simultaneously build relationships that ground what challenges our people face and what matters to them.

By being human first, she succeeds where others fail.

At one point, her little law firm engages a big, corporate firm to help with the case. The corporate lawyers are quick to optimize and move things to scale, which also means killing any humanization — epitomized by referring to their people as “the plaintiffs.” Kind of like how we refer to our people as “the customers” or “the donors.”

Erin knows all their names, phone numbers, and diseases by heart. I won’t pretend that it’s easy to keep things truly human at scale, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Start by investing in customer success teams who really care about the customer’s success. Revaluate what metrics you’re using. Bring in customers to share their stories on a regular basis at town halls and even board meetings.

You might not know all their phone numbers by heart, but you’ll be moving in the right direction.

By meeting her people where they are (literally and figuratively), she gains their trust and respect.

It’s not enough to just say hello over coffee or, in our world, drop an automated birthday email once a year. Erin excels at meeting people where they are. She speaks their language, and she understands their problems. She doesn’t ask them to rearrange their lives to make her comfortable; she follows them through cowpens to get the information she needs to make their lives better.

And that means she has their trust and their respect. Ultimately, it’s Erin’s ability to gain their trust that enables her to get the final piece of evidence — and all 600+ signatures — needed to win the case.

By doggedly focusing on helping her people, she inspires others to help her make it happen.

Erin actually gets fired briefly because her boss doesn’t know she’s off working on this case. Once he understands that there is a case, the retirement-focused Ed wants to stop at every milestone on the way up the mountain. But it’s Erin’s commitment to helping her people that keeps him moving forward.

Even with the most inspiring mission, we can’t do it alone. Centering your people helps your team to thrive because they can see the impact of their work firsthand.

You find out that they won the case in a one-on-one conversation between Erin and the woman whose case started it all. It’s fitting. Erin was driven to do something meaningful, and she recognized that meaning came from helping someone. She was also willing to work her ass off to make it happen.

As you’re building your business, remember to take the time to keep your people front and center as human beings so you both experience success.

Or as Erin would say, “Have a f*@%ing cup of coffee, Ed.”

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Originally published at https://katieburkhart.me on February 26, 2021.

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