Employees First, Customers Second

Customer service is something all organizations and businesses strive to achieve.  Some can be quite good at it.  Think about going to a store and returning an item.  Depending on the organization, it can be something a customer can complete within a couple of minutes, while sometimes you may feel like you are being interrogated and may or may not be successful in returning the merchandise.  For tech organizations, having knowledgeable help desks can walk their customers through troubleshooting steps or can provide instructions on how to use their product.  I am sure many people have purchased something, and have had difficulties getting it setup correctly.  In many cases, these items may be eventually returned due to the complexities for installing it.  Regardless of the type of organization, I feel that customer service can be successful if the customers are not put first.

This logic may seem quite contrary to many years of business operations that strive to have a happy customer base.  However, over the last few years, I have researched and read about many organizations that have a happy customer base.  Not all organizations make firm commitments to their customers, or have mission statements that may include “the customer is always right” behind all of their counters or in employee areas.  If the customer is not first, exactly how can an organization achieve heightened success in customer service areas?

When speaking with our team of IT analysts where I currently manage a team of desktop support analysts for over 2,000 staff (combined with about 4,000 pieces of equipment supported in student computer labs), I often tell them my analogy of a restaurant.

Imagine you are an owner of a small restaurant, perhaps just having that single location.  While owner and acting as staff manager, you have attitude problems.  You may yell and scream at employees, are inflexible when someone is running late or has obligations for their family, or basically abuse everyone verbally.  As a result the employees will experience morale problems.  They may take the mind-set of “just as long as I get paid, I don’t care about anything else.”  These individuals may not care that a Friday evening is slow or see it as lost business or opportunities to gain new loyal customers, or they may not care about the quality of the food.  In other words they may not take an active interest in the outcome of the restaurant.  Suppose that you, the owner and manager, start preaching customer service skills to the employees, stating that the customer experience should be their main focus and that the customer is always right.  Exactly what kind of success can you expect from a staff suffering from morale problems or not really caring about the health and well-being of the organization?

This is a situation is prevalent in many organizations today.  They will reduce staff to save the organization money (usually low level employees or low management, not upper management), but yet expect the remaining staff to remain loyal and perform their increased responsibilities with care and excellence.  No amount of stress and emphasis from executive management will encourage these individuals to pursue quality customer experiences.  They may work well with customers, but I do not see an employee base who takes an active interest in making their customers happy.

Let’s go back to the restaurant analogy, but assume that you are a new owner who has taken over an under-performing restaurant.  The first step is that you get to know the staff, their interests and personal lives outside of work, or what they want to become.  After a meet-and-great meeting with all members of the staff, you make the following announcement:

“Employees first, customers second!”

This may confuse the staff at your meeting.  But think about the ramifications.  The previous owner belittled the staff, but clearly put the interests of the customer first, not caring about those who are charged with creating a quality customer experience.  While the staff experienced low morale and higher turnover, the customers never seemed to have a quality experience and the repeat customer rate was probably quite low.  This is no way to run an organization, whether it is a restaurant, retail operation, or even a consultant firm.  You, the new owner, decides to take an active interest in the personal well-being of the staff.  You allow them comp days for extra work, or allow individuals with family obligations to work flex hours to allow them to care for their family, but yet still put their time in.  Maybe someone is taking a class, but cannot afford textbooks; you decide to implement a tuition assistance program for students.  With these employee benefits in place, the morale quickly rebounds and rises.  The question remains, do you need to stress customer service for this staff?

I think not.  For organizations with a high morale among the staff, they will take better care of their customers.  Organizations that provide employee first perks and programs will have a staff that in turn supports the organization.  When they are happy, they will take ownership of the company’s well-being, and when they take ownership, they will take care of their customers.  When given authority to take care of the customer, they will do so.  The moral of the story is quite simple.  When the employees are taken care of, all the other things will take care of themselves.  Management will not need to constantly send time attempting to make sure work is proceeding along, and they will not need to spend time motivating the staff.  Instead, these individuals can have trust in the staff to perform their duties in excess of that the description demands, and the staff and management can collaborate on furthering the organizational goals in a spirit of cooperation with an eye to the future.  For those who do not, they will spend time following up on employees, spend time and effort in attempts to keep a staff motivated, and still will probably lose customers no matter how much emphasis they place on them.

The customer may always be right, but the employee should come first.

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