Best Place to Work, Best Place to Be a Customer

The last two places that I worked shared a common motto:

“We want to be the best place to work, and the best place to be a customer.”

For years, I heard this motto repeated at all-hands meetings. Heads would always nod.

The duality of this statement isn’t necessarily one of conflict.

Happy, engaged employees develop better relationships with customers. Investing in being the best place to work should result in also being the best place to be a customer.

However, in reality, putting employees first often means that you’re putting your customers as a close second.

Let's walk through an example scenario.

Imagine you’re the head of operations at a software company with 100 people. To celebrate a successful quarter, you’ve planned an all-day picnic in the park with balloon animals, novelty popsicles, and a celebrity guest speaker. You’ve organized free transportation for everyone to leave the office and enjoy the off-campus outing.

Gotta get everybody in the company photo!

You also have a stated policy that customer service is available from 9:00 AM - 6:00 PM, Monday through Friday. You have SLAs: one hour response time for support requests and 99.99% uptime of your application.

If you lean hard enough into an employees-first mindset you might say,

“You know what? We’re shutting down customer service and engineering ops for the day. We’ll put up an away message, set an autoresponder, and truly unplug together as a team.”

In this case, you’re prioritizing the inclusion of your employees ABOVE any urgent needs of your customers, and you’re hoping that by setting clear expectations with your customers, they’ll be understanding.

On the flip side, if you rely on a customers-first mindset you might say,

“Hey y’all - we need a few people to volunteer to work in short shifts and a couple of people to be on call so we can hold down the fort during our outing.”

In this case, you’re prioritizing the delivery of service to your customers ABOVE an experience for some of your employees, and you’re hoping that your employees won’t be resentful when they miss out on some of the fun.

Now, let's say you went with option one (employees-first) and mandated that everyone unplug for the day.

Now, imagine that even just one of your employees has a strongly-held, personal customers-first mindset.

Then, you might hear some feedback like,

“Hey, boss - I don’t feel okay about unplugging for the off-campus day. I don’t think I’ll be able to truly enjoy the outing knowing that customers could have urgent issues and be disappointed when we’re not there to help.”

Yeesh. What now? Do you force this employee to take time off knowing that they won’t truly have fun?

The thing about “firsts” is that there can only be one.

Putting your employees first only works if none of your employees are putting your customers first.

You can, however, choose to hire and build a culture of individual employees who put customers first.

When that happens, you have to design your internal processes with the customer experience first. Then, you work backwards to figure out what has to happen to keep your employees supported as they deliver on the customers-first approach.

And, often, the decision that puts the customer first also benefits the employees, too.

Here are some examples of win-win customers-first actions benefiting employees:

  • Using a third-party data service to enrich CRM records: lessens the burden on new prospects to submit information during their buying process also reduces manual data entry for your sales team.
  • Ramping up support hiring: delivers a fast response time for customers and also gives veteran support agents freedom to take time off and focus on high-level projects.
  • Scheduling strictly defined and distributed on-call shifts over holidays: ensures reliability for customers and also gives employees confidence that when they get done with their shift they can truly enjoy their time without worry.

Operating with a customers-first approach while keeping employees supported is challenging. It requires you to be careful with your resources, to plan ahead, to communicate clearly, and to set expectations both internally and externally.

It also doesn’t mean that the customer is always right or always wins in every situation. For example, any customer who treats your employees with hate or disrespect should get fired without hesitation. At that point, they’re no longer a customer, and you no longer have to put them first.

And, it doesn't mean that you can throw your employees under the bus to deliver for your customers. For example, if you've gotten yourself in a situation where everyone has to stop, drop, and roll to deliver a feature for a customer, you probably need to revisit your planning process and figure out how to allocate resources to prevent that kind of fire drill in the future. Otherwise, the burnout will eventually win.

Let employees-first decisions lead to customers-first processes.

The reality is that most of us are operating somewhere in the middle. In our day-to-day, we make some decisions because it’s the best thing for our co-workers, and we make other decisions because it’s the best thing for our customers. That healthy tension between our dual goals can force us to focus and develop processes that’ll do a pretty darn good job of delivering for both our colleagues and our customers.

Next time you find yourself in a position where you know you’re making an “employees-first” decision, step back and think the whole thing through:

What resources would it require for me to make a customers-first decision without compromising the well-being of my employees?

Would anything about that customers-first approach benefit my employees as a secondary result?

Is there anything I can do to today to get us a little bit closer to putting the customer first next time?

And then do what you think is best.

After all, we're all just people trying to help other people. And, we have to take care of ourselves so we have enough strength to keep helping.