Who’s more important to your business, your customer or your employees?

Who’s more important to your business, your customer or your employees?

It’s a simple question, but one that businesses need to answer. Who do we put first — the customer or the employee? For this chicken-and-egg debate, there’s actually a clear answer. But it may not be what you expect.

The argument for the customer

When it comes to customer satisfaction, there’s no dearth of quotes: The customer is always right. Good customer service costs less than bad customer service. Customers remember the service a lot longer than they remember the price. Your customers are responsible for your company's reason for existing.

Long-time businesses, especially those in retail and in the service industry, have made customer the king. The thinking behind it is simple: if you give customers what they want, they’ll keep coming back to you, and your business thrives.

But in the past few decades, some of the sage truths about customer service have been proven to be false.

1. Myth: Customers are willing to pay more for better service. According to research gathered by software company Salesforce, 67% of customers say they will pay more for a better customer experience. Furthermore, an American Express study found that consumers are willing to spend 17% more on a company that has outstanding customer service.

That’s what customers say when asked for feedback. But what customers actually do is different from what they say. In fact, the opposite can happen — customers are willing to sacrifice service over price.

  • Over the last decade, gas stations shifted from full-service to self-service or “no service” to keep the gas prices down. Today, the majority of stations all over the United States are self-service ones.
  • Established in Toronto in 1978, the No-Frills Grocery Store offered a very limited range of goods but at much lower prices and with lots of discounts. The store had minimal staffing, the displays were in original shipping crates, and there wasn’t a fresh meat department. Yet huge crowds overwhelmed the store when it opened.

2. Myth: The customer is always right. Retailers coined this phrase in the early 1900s when they realized that their success depended on customer satisfaction. And the phrase took off all over the world. The Spanish “El cliente siempre tiene la razón” and the Italian “il cliente ha sempre ragione” both mean “the customer always has a reason.” Germans say “der Kunde ist König” or “the customer is king,” but the Japanese take it one step further: “okyakusama wa kamisama desu” translates to “the customer is a god.”

But the world has evolved, and with it, the view towards customers. Some customers are simply unreasonable, demanding, and rude. And with social media today, customers may be wrong, but they can use their online platform as a weapon against you.

Today, businesses believe that while customers aren’t always right, it pays to have a mindset of treating your customers special and providing them a great customer experience.

The argument for the employee

Continental Airlines’ turnaround from worst airline to first in customer service makes the best case of why customers shouldn’t always be right. When Gordon Bethune became CEO in 1994, he changed the culture of Continental into “employees first.” In a conflict between his employees versus his customers, he always sided with the former. He trusted his employees over unreasonable customers.

This resulted in happy employees. And employees who are happy in their jobs will strive to serve their customers better. It also makes it easier for companies to hold on to their best employees.

The argument for the employer

So now we’re back to the chicken-and-egg question between the importance of employees versus customers. Perhaps the right question to ask is: “Who is in the position to make employees and customers happy?”

What’s great about Gordon Bethune’s story is that he strikes a balance between his employees and his customers. When it comes to establishing the culture of your business, it is your most senior executive who sets the tone. Because the truth is, both employees and customers are important to the success of your business. The happiness of your employees fuels the satisfaction of your customers. And when faced with a few bad customers out there, siding with your employees will keep your staff happy. After all, what have you to lose but customers who are bad for your business in the first place?

When Carl Scalzo founded Online Computers in 2012, he built a dedicated team of IT experts while maintaining strong relationships with his clients, business partners, and vendors. This led to working for businesses, schools, legal offices, health care facilities, and non-profit organizations. Thanks to his wide range of experiences, he’s always invited to be a presenter at trade shows. He is also a published author; his latest book on cybersecurity is the Amazon bestseller “YOU Are The #1 Target” which he co-authored with leading IT experts. He also co-wrote the eBook “The Business Owner's Essential Guide to I.T. & All Things Digital” which you can download for free.

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