To do What’s Best for Customers, Have an Employee-First Approach
So stop saying that the customer is always right because the employee is right too.
In teaching, there’s a term called “administrative support” that teachers ask other teachers or people that have experience with the school before they go. Having administration support or not support you in the day-to-day, chaotic functioning of a school can make or break your teaching experience.
These types of administrative support include having administration back up teachers in terms of conflicts with students and parents, being consistent in student discipline, getting materials to teach effectively, and having time to plan lessons regularly. During the pandemic, support looked different, but just giving teachers space and not micromanaging with punitive measures.
I have realized that the hierarchy in education, that goes from administration to teacher to student, however, is very similar to any job, where the hierarchy goes from boss to employee to customer. The boss is the administration for us, the employee is us teachers, and the customer is the students, if we want to use that analogy.
The famous motto that “the customer is always right” which dominates the service industry means that employees and service staff should give the highest possible priority to customer satisfaction. All complaints should be treated seriously for the benefit of the customer.
But no, the customer is not always right — customers can be rude, dishonest, and flat-out assholes. The motto means that employees have to bend over and cater to every wish of the customer even when behavior is rude and downright abusive.
Having a mindset of “the customer is always right” in the service industry has often been the bane of existence for many employees in the service sector. However, it’s true of all almost industries that customers are prioritized by bosses over the people and employees who interact most with the customer, which is a little problematic too since the mantra was coined in 1909, over 110 years ago.
It isn’t uncommon for employees to be demonized while trying to do what’s best for the customer, but this convention so often puts employees and bosses at odds, with employees feeling like bosses don’t value them, and bosses feeling like employees are not doing good enough.
Instead, work culture in America should be changed to put employees in all sectors first. In fact, according to a 2017 employee job satisfaction survey by the Society for Human Resource Engagement, 61% of employees in America rank trust between employees and senior management as very important, but only 33% of America’s employees are very satisfied with that trust.
Josiah Humphery and Mark McDonald, co-CEOs of the company Appster, shake their heads at the idea that “the customer is always right” mantra in dealing with customer satisfaction. The Appster CEOs run an employee first, customer second philosophy. Humphery and McDonald would cite a 1994 Harvard Business Review article that proved their strategy’s success and ultimate customer satisfaction.
“Value is created by satisfied, loyal and productive employees,” the article says. “Employee satisfaction, in turn, results primarily from high-quality support services and policies that enable employees to deliver results to customers.”
Happy employees, then are the most important thing for a boss to have, since they lead to more loyal customers, more revenue growth, and overall greater profitability. To Humphery and McDonald, their internal culture is the same thing as their brand. To them, customers always believe what insiders have to say about a company's culture.
“You wouldn’t believe how many projects we’ve won purely because people have gone on Glassdoor and seen what actual employees say about the business,” McDonald says. “Companies can fake testimonials, they can get Facebook likes but the one thing they can’t fake is how happy their employees are with the business and that’s a huge thing.”“
McDonald also talked about the fact that degrees of separation within particular industries are getting smaller — someone who once worked at your company could later end up being a major decision maker. He says that the worst thing you can do as a boss is burn bridges and relationships that you bump into later — and because employee referrals for the company are positive, more good talent wants to work at the company. Since where you work is such a big deal, the first thing you do is ask around to see how other people enjoyed working at the company.
Appster isn’t the only company that is prioritizing employee-first thinking — but other companies are finding out that being respectful and ethical to your employees isn’t only the right thing to do, but it pays. In fact, Heather Huhman on Entrepreneur says that having a culture committee helps leaders align daily practices with the larger vision of the company.
Fueling employee growth for long term growth pushes teams beyond their limits. Chris Rothstein, the CEO of Groove, a San Francisco-based sales engagement platform, stated a commitment to helping employees reach their own goals, even if it means they’ll eventually leave. With benefits like education reimbursement, one-on-one feedback meetings, they see substantial staff growth.
“We try to put our team members into projects before they’re necessarily ready, which is, in my opinion, a worthwhile risk for a company to take,” Rothstein said in an e-mail to Huhman. “It empowers the employee to learn new things by trial and pushes them outside their comfort zone.”
Bosses that protect their employees prove their devotion to their staff. At one point of their career, every employee, like every teacher, is bound to encounter an unruly customer. Employees want to know that they’re supported by their bosses. According to Huhman, in one instance, an account representative at Pluralsight faced verbal abuse from one of the company’s biggest customers.
The boss, Piyush Patel, then found out that the customer was breaking the company’s core values, and decided to fire the customer. He has since left the company, but at the time was the vice president of creative content.
“I won’t tolerate anyone disrespecting my employees,” Patel said. Even though he didn’t know how to make up for the loss of business he received, his priority was to refuse to “bend your values, no matter what.” He wanted to send the message that his employees were more valuable than abusive customers with a lot of profits and money.
“Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers,” said Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
It is employees that are the first to interact with clients and customers. To prioritize customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction must come first for leadership of any organization. A happy teacher makes a happy student. A happy clerk makes a happy customer.
So bosses, change your mantra. Put your employees first. Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, which controls more than 400 companies, suggests that prioritizing the employee will have the customers and shareholders come by default.
So stop saying that the customer is always right, because the employee is right too.