Why the Customer Shouldn’t Really Come First

I recently listened in on a town hall meeting with a high level executive. He was spouting rhetoric about sticking to policies and upholding rules. As someone who likes the cleanliness of rules and guidelines, I was ambivalent to what was being shared.

Then something caught my ear. An audience member asked a question about a specific process and an interaction with a customer.

The executive proudly asserted, “The customer always comes first.” He continued to tout how the organization should always be focused on the customer and intimated anyone who is not on board with putting the customer first should look for employment elsewhere. Why? “Because we are the kind of organization who cares.”

While I applaud his stalwart dedication to the customer, I felt a sadness on behalf of the questioner. I perceived the answer to focus on the customer lacked insight.

If they were a caring organization, why did I get the feeling that the employee didn’t feel cared for in the response?

I wondered if what I was feeling was a “thing” - focusing on the customer isn’t the full right answer - and found it is.

Marriott International’s mission answers the unspoken question as to why the executive’s response felt wrong while it sounded right.

Marriott’s mission is: “If we take care of our people, they will take care of our customers, and the customers will come back.”

Fundamental difference.


Putting the customer first and foremost leapfrogs over the ones doing the work to care for the customer.

Ironically, by putting the customer first (and by default not focusing on anyone else), the perception is that the bottom line is all that matters. Morale decreases due to employees perceiving they are not as important as the bottom line, which causes turnover, which will cause a gap in knowledge, which will create deficient customer service, which will push customers away.

However, by putting employees first, they feel valued and cared for, which provides an intrinsic motivation to do well. Engagement increases, which increases the quality of service, which improves retention and knowledge base, which gives a positive impression to the customer. The customer is more likely to return.

What does it mean to put employees first? While many variations exist, here are three basic ways to care for your employees:

  • Physical care: Provide quality benefits and perks. Post-COVID, the desired perks have shifted to include flextime and options to work remotely. Health insurance is huge - don’t skimp on this key benefit. Childcare is another growing need and sometimes creates enough of a barrier that it is easier to quit and lose the income than to figure out childcare. Keep a pulse on your people and it will become clear what benefits will truly care for them.

  • Intellectual care: Connect to individuals. Simply asking for thoughts and ideas during a general staff meeting is not enough. Schedule time to hear their ideas, thoughts, and concerns. Follow through on what you can and provide feedback on what you can’t.

  • Social care: Provide social outlets for your team. This doesn’t need to be big. It could be as simple as ordering pizza, setting it up under a shade tree, and letting people rotate through on their lunch break, or after business hours. All employees are social beings, yes, even the one who prefers to be a hermit. Social events should not be compulsory, and by providing social outlets the team has options to grow outside of work routines.


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