Customers first, or employees – do you really need to ask?

I was struck a few years back when I read Herb Kelleher’s excellent account of the growth of SouthWest Airlines that he held the view that customers come second whilst employees come first. Aha! I thought, contrarian thinking from the head of a company renowned for delivering a great customer experience, that’s great! And since I have come across similar statements from Richard Branson and many others  I have tended to repeat this as a piece of received wisdom. Time then to unpack the issue and ask: in a company that wants to provide a great customer experience do customers come first or second?

Is it true?

Temkin Research measures employee engagement for US companies and state in the results of their 2016 study that

‘customer experience leaders have 1.5 times as many engaged employees as do customer experience laggards’.

Fair enough, but I decided to do my own bit of research to see if there was some UK data that backed this up, so I took KPMG Nunwood’s Customer Experience Excellence research top 10 and looked up the reviews of these companies by current/ex-employees on a job board ( where companies are rated on a 1-5 scale. Nunwood’s research doesn’t have a ‘worst’ category so I did the same for the bottom 5 from the 2015 Which? survey on the grounds that the usual suspects would probably show up in a lot of these studies.

The results – shown below – are not that conclusive but do indicate that better employers are likely to deliver better customer experiences. Interestingly first direct has the lowest rating out of the top 10, although the sample size of reviews is low compared with some of the others and may be skewed by ex-employees who didn’t respond that well to what sounds from review comments like a highly targeted and focused contact centre environment.

Nunwood CEE ranking 2016 Employee rating
1 first direct 3.1
2 John Lewis 4.2
3 Lush 4.1
4 Emirates 4.2
5 Amazon 3.7
6 Richer Sounds no data
7 M&S Food 4
8 Giffgaff no data
9 Apple store 4.3
9 Nationwide Building Society 3.8
Average 3.9
Which 2015 bottom 5  Employee rating
Vodafone 4
TalkTalk 3.6
BT 3.8
Npower 3
Scottish Power no data
Average 3.6

So who comes first?

Whilst my data may not be compelling there’s enough anecdotal evidence elsewhere to indicate that you need to create a more engaged workforce to increase the likelihood of a great customer experience. But does that mean that employees are the number one priority?

Ask a silly question

I think that once you go beyond the headline the issue is a lot more nuanced than ‘who’s more important?’ Clearly customers are the number one priority because if you didn’t have enough of them your business wouldn’t survive long (I’ll have that MBA now, thanks) but what’s also critical is knowing which customers you want to market to. Having customers as the number one priority doesn’t mean that

  • you do everything the customer wants i.e. the proposition is clearly defined (for example I don’t go to McDonalds expecting a gourmet restaurant experience, people don’t fly SouthWest expecting Emirates-style service)
  • you ignore other business priorities like running effective processes to deliver your products and services and delivering a profit to shareholders.

Similarly, putting employees as the number one priority doesn’t mean that meeting customer needs isn’t important.

So asking the question is a bit like saying there is a choice whereas the reality is that you need to do both. And actually if you need to ask you probably need to surface the disconnect that causes it to be a question in the first case.

Engagement in a nutshell

The evidence – particularly if you spend time looking at employee comments on customer experience leaders and laggards certainly suggests that a more engaged set of people will stand more chance of providing a great experience. Based on the insights of Richard Branson, Bruce Temkin and others I offer the following list of imperatives:

  • Treat people like adults.
  • Genuinely listen to people’s concerns and empower them to fix the things that are getting in the way of providing a great service.
  • Make the company mission crystal clear.
  • Provide training and tools to help people be successful.
  • Recruit for attitude then train for skill.

Do these and you’ll create a company people want to join, stay with and build a career built on delighting customers.

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