What Is Our Business? Who Are Our Customers?

What is a court’s business? Peter Drucker, probably the most revered management thinker, suggests that this fundamental question may seem simple and obvious. It is in fact difficult and anything but obvious (see his Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. HarperCollins, 1993, pp. 77 – 79).

I know it may sound heretical, but a court’s business is not necessarily determined and defined by law. Instead, it is defined by the wants and needs of its “customers,” suggests Drucker. “To satisfy the customer is the mission and purpose of every business.” By business, he means any enterprise: private, non-profit, and public.

For example, an appellate court may consider its primary customers to be the members of the appellate bar and trial bench who are the major consumers of the appellate court’s decisions and opinions. Because a few pro se litigants are likely to be the only members of the public who have direct contact with the appellate court, and because most appellant litigants’ court experiences are moderated by their attorneys, an appellate court may legitimately see the members of the appellate bar and trial bench as their primary customers. Not so for trial courts.

The question “What is our business?” is best answered by looking at the court’s business from the point of view of those served by the court. What they see, think, believe and want should be accepted as objective fact and should be taken as seriously as the on-time case processing reports by court analysts or the cost-per-case data reported by court finance officers. (Incidentally, there is nothing “soft” or subjective about what people believe to be true about justice and fairness. But that’s a topic for a future posting.)

Notice that to answer the question “What is our business?” we first need to answer the question “Who are our customers?” Both questions should be answered by looking at our business from the outside out the court, i.e., from the perspective of those who use the courts and are served by the court.

Over the last 25 years, there has been a dramatic shift from an insider’s perspective (those who run the courts) to an outsider’s perspective (those who are served by the courts) for defining the mission and purpose of courts. The promulgation of Trial Court Performance Standards in the late 1980s and early 1990s were instrumental in this shift in thinking. They defined the purpose and major performance goals of courts from the perspective of the citizens served by the courts: meaningful access to justice; timeliness and expedition; fairness, equality and integrity of the court system; independence and accountability; trust and confidence.

The takeaway message: Courts should be clear who they regard as their customers, they should determine what it takes to satisfy their needs and wants, they should regularly and continuously get their answers to the question “How are we doing?” and, finally, they should use this feedback to finds ways to improve.

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