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On Employee Engagement: “The Customer Always Comes First” Why That Principle Is Killing Your Company

  • “The Customer Always Comes First”  Why That Principle Is Killing Your Company

Please don’t feed me the line that The Customer Always Comes First. It makes me gag. Any business believing that malarkey probably begins their staff meetings by holding hands around a circle and chanting Kumbaya.

Just in case you may have journeyed to another planet for the past few decades and you’re now returning to the mother ship, brace yourself for the big revelation --- the customer doesn’t come first; your employees do.

Some time ago I was invited to address a group of students at the University of Tampa’s College of Business concerning the importance of culture as a driver of long-term corporate success. At the conclusion of my presentation, a student approached me with this question, “I really believe that taking care of your people profits an entire enterprise. But don’t you have to have some longevity on your team to take performance to the highest level?”

Read the JOLTS report (Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey) published by the U.S. Department of Labor and you’ll get an idea of what may have prompted the student’s question. In 2014, the number of people who quit their jobs rose for the fifth consecutive year; in addition, layoffs and discharges also rose during the same time period. Notwithstanding the dynamics of a multi-generational workforce, that’s not exactly a pretty picture of employee retention.

Here’s the dilemma: while companies invest liberally to lure more customers through the front door with all kinds of gimmicks and incentives, their neglected employees are banging down the back door to escape a catastrophic internal culture.

The autopsies on failed businesses are replete with these familiar and forlorn themes of toxic work environments:

  •  Poor (if any) internal communication platforms
  •  A “silo” mentality among departments
  •  Minimal opportunities for cross-functional teamwork and job diversification
  •  Non-existent or marginal employee recognition programs
  • Renegade managers that abuse the good will of their direct reports

The list goes on but you get the picture. It’s tragic that opportunities to create a sustainable competitive advantage are flushed down the swirling drains of companies whose naiveté leads them to believe that making the customer number one is their most important mission.

A crash course in how businesses need to navigate the uncertainty of our twenty-first century economy might suggest the following:

  • Accept the fundamental premise that committed, competent, and engaged employees drive long-term shareholder return.
  • Develop a team of servant leaders that embraces the principles of internal guest service, modeling the behaviors they expect their employees to deliver to customers.
  •  Implement a performance management system that fosters employee initiative, energizes work teams, and takes into consideration the dynamics of a workforce that is fluid and ever changing.
  •  Invest in the personal and professional growth and development of your employees.
  • Employ market research to educate and train employees in the wants and needs of their customers.

If your company is still married to the fantasy that the sun rises and sets with your customers, then get a divorce. Without your employees, there are no customers.

When Doug Conant, former President and CEO at the Campbell Soup Company, led a remarkable turnaround for that corporation, he astutely observed that, “To win in the marketplace, you must first win in the workplace.” Who doesn’t get that?


Tom McQueen is PDP's automotive industry expert and has consulted with over 400 dealerships on performance improvement and employee engagement.

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