Which comes first, customers or employees?

Recently we encountered an article with the very same idea in Inc. Magazine, written by Steve Tobak. What fascinated us was the question as to whether there was a clear relationship between customer and employee engagement.  Did companies that we think of as providing great customer service necessarily treat their employees (or in the case of healthcare—caregivers) better?  Is there clear evidence that employee engagement the secret sauce for great customer engagement and satisfaction?

To explore this a bit more, we asked a series of experts what they thought about the topic.  But before doing so, we wanted to take a quick poll to find out how many people in the WorkersCount community actually felt empowered in their jobs to deliver extraordinary customer service.  One of our co-founders tells an amazing (and true) story about this engagement and empowerment and a major credit-reporting bureau. So we asked our daily users at WorkersCount what they thought about their experience.  Interestingly only 58% felt regularly so empowered.   

Like most of you, we would love to get a list of the organizations which provide this secret sauce (or not) to their employees.  As WorkersCount community members already know, we can’t disclose the exact responses.  But we’ll report them in aggregate in the “Grass is Greener” section of the app.

Armed with these aggregated survey results, we reached out to the experts. We were surprised by what we heard.

The Customer Comes Second

Our first expert referred us to a book by Hal Rosenbluth. The book’s title says it all. “The Customer Comes Second.”  It’s this sort of “hard-boiled” reality about how brands have to behave that gives us pause.  Pragmatic voices in this area point out that customers can’t get world-class service and products when the very people that provide front-line service and care are in agony.  Makes sense, but it’s eye-opening that big brands are also aware of the need to bump the priorities of end-users in favor of focusing on worker priorities.  This gives us pause, yet also hope.

Companies shouldn't have to choose

Our second expert disagreed with the first by saying companies don't have to choose between putting employees or customers first.  

“But if you don't have highly engaged employees, you won't have customer engagement or loyalty. So I would argue that if the company doesn't put employees first, the employees won't put the customer first”.

We loved this comment from this expert. How many organizations really have this perspective?  He concluded with:

“so many still don't get it, that employee engagement is not about making your employees happy by giving them expensive perks but more about treating them like adults and evolving them in decisions that affect them”. 

Well-said and words to live-by for both companies and families, as all of us with children already know.

Employees come first in sequence, not importance

Our next expert said that he agreed 100%. Both are important, and they are, but employees come first because they then deliver the desired customer experience. That's when differentiation starts to happen.   So employees are the first place to focus effort because the customer is “down-stream” and thus second mainly in sequence and impact, not in priority.  This starts to make sense.

Getting Culture Right Makes everything else fall in place

Our next expert, however, didn’t flinch in his position that it starts with workers.  Citing how great customer-focused brands includiing Starbucks, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, USAA, Amazon have a set of values that put both on equal footing.  That said, it’s the workers at these great companies that have the role and primary mission of delivering this service.  So that’s the first place to focus a company’s training, resources and overall attention.   It’s “first” in sequence, not pure importantce per-se.

So while workers come out “first” in this in terms of sequence, it’s not suggesting winner and a loser and in fact the evidence shows that they both “win.”  As Tony Hsieh said

"If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff, including building a great brand, will fall into place on its own."

Employee Engagement is not the same thing as Employee Happiness

Our next expert agreed by saying great employees are a prerequisite to great customer service/loyalty. The big difference in perspective however is that employee engagement is not the same thing as employee happiness. “Meaning” is the key component of employee engagement.

A question every employer should ask themselves about “Meaning”

“Do you know why your employees are doing what they do for a living?”  Too many companies never bother to connect with the “motivations” of their front-line workers.  Thus they never really know where to focus their engagement efforts.  It’s hard work to get to this truth.  And the truth can sometimes be scary to employers.  It’s easier to create catchy slogans about “customers come first” than it is to take the time to figure out what motivates, excites and really drives the very workers charged with delivering this great service.  Sounds odd, doesn’t it.  But it’s the reality at most companies.  Marketing slogans don’t drive worker engagement efforts.  They are too often in different silos.

Coming back to our question -- companies don't have to choose between putting employees or customers first. " Our experts agree that If you lose one, you 'll lose both.  What’s often lost is the “meaning” part of the discussion.  Workers must be addressed and engaged as individuals that “want” to provide great service and have pride about their contribution to a great brand.  Within that, it’s important to connect with the “why” of worker engagement—why are they working for your brand?  What is driving them to do their particular role/job?  For those that directly (personally) impact the customer experience, what emotional drivers are at work? 

When brands connect with these emotional drivers, and marry worker engagement efforts with accountability and ownership of customer satisfaction metrics, they win.


The question of who comes “first” is an interesting debate with many nuances, our experts agree as a group that it can’t be “either-or.”  Great organizations- from industrial equipment makers, to retail organizations to healthcare delivery giants – all have one thing in common in this global marketplace—the most powerful and effective way to create durable competitive advantage is to deliver world-class customer care.  And the obvious (but often lost) correlative to that is the “who” of this service delivery is their great employee base.  Giving lip-service to “customers come first” is a great branding and “internal company meme” but it misses the mark if its not accompanied by real and meaningful attention to worker engagement and the “meaning” of their jobs, roles, and personal experience vis-à-vis “their” customers.

And of course we conclude with the coda of “WorkersCount.”  A brand can’t deliver world-class customer service without a group of highly motivated, empowered and “happy” workers.  Customer loyalty comes from interactions with actual workers.  And because this means real human beings connecting with others, we can’t ignore the impact of happy people on others.   We’re all customers.  Which kind of worker would you rather encounter?

That’s what we thought.

1 response
Mind you, employees are also referred to as 'internal customers'. Just as you approach life, the world and every working day with a mission, goal or purpose, it's best to go inside-out. So I'm for first get the employee thing right (staff numbers & quality, reward structure, ownership, the right ethics, vision sharing etc), and then go to the service delivery trenches together :)