Do NOT Treat Your Employees As Customers

No, I’m not touting leadership blasphemy!  Let me start this off by explaining with how my sometimes seemingly counter- culture philosophy came about.  I’ll justify from the start!

I first heard the concept “you must treat your employees as customers” when I was attending a public board meeting in the early 1990’s.  A fellow board-member and businessperson explained over lunch how the key to her success was that she treated her employees as customers.   I winced and kept uncharacteristically quiet.  It seemed that from that lunch forth, as a cosmic force attempted to sway me, I heard the phrase over and over again.

treat customers like employees

About a year later, when I was in the restaurant business,  I went to meet with one of our restaurant managers.  It was an important meeting with lots on the agenda and we would be pressed for time.  As we were meeting at a table, a customer came in and stood in the reception area.

Two employees were sitting at a table talking and made no move to get up and meet the customer – though they shouted a reassuring “be right with you”.  I looked at the manager and told him to take care of his customer. He started to object but I wouldn’t listen.  He handled the customer and came back.

He explained that the employees had an issue and that he told them to take a few minutes to work it out.  He then explained that he usually would have gotten up right away to help a customer but we had a scheduled meeting and little time to cover our business – he didn’t want to “put me off”.

He then went on to talk about how important it is for him to respect his employees and give them time to work through differences… that he had attended a (national training mill) workshop on Treating Your Employees as Customers… As soon as those words got out of his mouth, my words got out!  “And while you’re treating your employees as customers, how are you treating your customers?”

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treat employees like customers

I believe firmly that every person in the organization needs to have a very clear picture of who “the customer” is if the business expects to be successful.  The customer is the primary focus of the business: the product is designed and made for the customer, the food is cooked for the customer the service is provided to the customer.

The customer is the funder of the business; when they tell their friends about their experiences, they are the marketers; when they wear the t-shirts and caps and tote branded shopping bags down the street – they are the ad-men; when they give you feedback, they are quality control and product development.  The success of a business is dependent on the customer experience.  Don’t muddy the definition.

Every person in the organization needs to know clearly who the customer is and what the expectation is with customer interactions.  Every person is responsible for managing a customer’s “moment of truth”.

When the definition is watered down, the risk is that you lose focus on the true customer.  In my early example, the employees were “feathering their own nest” – taking care of their own “immediate” needs rather than the needs of the customer – after all, they’re customers too!The manager felt that meeting with me was more important that waiting on a customer – because in his store all staff were customers and I was the “king of staff”!

how to treat your employees

Shifting the “customer focus” to the employees, or even sharing the focus, runs the risk of customer neglect because people have permission, and are at times encouraged to feather their own nests – take care of their needs first.  At worst it displays itself as “I love working here. They really respect you. Management is really nice to us. It’s too bad we have customers!”  That’s when it’s time to sell your stock in the company!

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So… how do you treat your employees?  The answer is really very basic (and I have written about it in earlier blogs – check them out!):  you treat every individual employee with unqualified fairness.  That’s a big challenge for leaders, but it’s not the same as treating them as customers.  You don’t compromise on your standards of quality and service that are in place for your customers.  In the end, business need – customer need – must be the first priority.

I have had the opportunities to work for some great companies that clearly understood this.  They have enviable reputations as customer “centers of excellence” and they consistently rank in Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For.  They treat employees with great respect and unqualified fairness and everyone knows “it’s about the customer”.  These companies thrive.  My board-member colleague unfortunately is out of business.

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