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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Employees first or customers first?

It is hotly debated whether it better business to serve customers as the company’s #1 priority or treat employees right and let them do their best work. Rather than frame debate as a conflict of service management philosophy – impossible to argue to conclusion – the timeline for executing any service experience provides the answer.

The answer is “yes” and “yes”, in that order.

A company’s ability to serve its customers is a direct reflection of the internal service those charged with providing front line service themselves receive.

Service businesses are fundamentally promise businesses.

Front line employees are in the business of fulfilling promises. But while front line providers are responsible for fulfilling promises and creating the experience, they don’t often carry the full responsibility for making service promises. These come from many sources, but they’re mostly made by the company through sales and marketing efforts.

After the promise is made, the support organization is responsible for enabling those promises to be kept by the line providers. Starting with leadership, through staff organizations in marketing / technology / service operations support / finance / human resources, and ending with line managers, all have as the primary objective (though staffers often forget this) of making it possible for line service staff to keep the right promises to the right customers.

Think about the last time you were agitated enough to raise your voice in a conversation with a front line provider who knew what to do in order to give you the service you expected, yet still wouldn’t.

It most likely wasn’t that they wouldn’t so much as they couldn’t. A lack of enablement – a failure of leadership, centralized support, line management or all three – produced that result and your reaction.

The debate will rage on about whether it is better business to make customers the #1 priority or whether it is better to treat employees best. But customers cannot be the #1 priority if the people designated to keep the promises the company is making aren’t enabled to make them #1 by world class support.


Kelly said...

Hi Chris,

You bring to light a very key point that most business fail to recognize, internal service. I agree that the service delivered to the consumer is a direct reflection of the service an employee receives from team members and leadership. It's critical for organizations to realize that front line employees aren't the only ones providing service to the consumers. Every business and every person in that organization is in the service business. Some will directly impact the consumer experience, others will indirectly impact the consumers experience. Both are equally as important and deserve attention and focus from leaders.

I also agree that both employees and consumers come first. Successful organizations such as Zappos, Disney and the Ritz Carlton get this and are wildly successful because of it. It isn't an either or equation.

Thanks for the post!

Barry Dalton said...

Agree that there need not have to be a choice. They are both critically important.

I would argue (well...suggest. Who wants to bicker and argue) that in terms of causailty, employee satisfaction and empowerment is the cause that affects a superior customer experience.

It is of course, but one component, along with customer-centric culture, strategy, processes and performance metrics. But it is a key component.

Good post!

Chris Reaburn said...


Thanks for the comment. I completely agree with you that employee satisfaction and empowerment are the keys to creating superior experiences that create lifetime customers.

What I'll also add here is that even if you don't believe that employee loyalty leads to customer loyalty, a lack of proper internal support makes it less likely that employess would be able to provide exceptional service, even if they wanted to.

put another way, the only way to make customers priority #1 is is to making employees priority #1.