do customers create culture?

I do most of my grocery shopping at two stores. [How’s that for a nail-biting edge of the seat start to a blog?] They are probably less than five miles apart, yet worlds different and these two stores have me wondering about company culture.

There is a lot of talk about company culture and no shortage of ideas and opinions on what it is, how you create it, why it’s important, where, when, etc. For all the discussion, I’ve never come across much on customers’ effect on culture, yet I suspect that they are a very large part of the equation.

It would be easy to argue that there is a chicken-and-egg effect where the culture, appearance, and products/services of a business attracts a certain type of customer, which reinforces the culture. Brew pubs, sports bars, and biker bars all have basically the same product, yet attract very different customers and those customers expect and uphold the culture of the business. Different types of  businesses attract different customers (duh!), but that’s not the case here.

These two stores seem very similar – both are superstores, about the same size, and owned by the same company. Both are the only grocery stores in their areas and the quality and friendliness of the employees is very similar. Where the stores differ is the attitudes of the customers.

Both stores are generally crowded and have narrow aisles, making getting around difficult, especially during peak hours. At one store, there is a relaxed it’s-crowded-but-we’re-all-in-it-together vibe. Customers are friendly, polite, and patient with each other. At the other store it’s a get-the-hell-out-of-my-war-you-idiot atmosphere. Customers are impatient, frustrated, and irritated with each other. It’s a very noticeable difference.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. Different departments or locations with the same company can have completely different cultures. Just changing one person on a team can have a noticeable effect. So why wouldn’t a group of different customers also create a different vibe?

We tend to think of it as a one-way relationship: we create a culture that will attract and support our target customers. What if it’s two-way and our customers also shape and influence the company?

Does that mean we need more or less effort on culture? Does that mean we should be seeking the customer’s thoughts more (and not in satisfaction surveys)? Does it mean nothing and we should stop worrying about it and get back to work?

What does it mean?

Your thoughts?



  1. Each individual brings there own “weather system” to each setting. Then those “fronts” interact with each other…understanding how those overlapping forces interact is a life-long art form. If how “how we behave” individually adds up to the shared *culture* then probably talking about norms we’d like to see with diplomatic honesty can help; but then, yes, get back to work.


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