Do employees or customers come first in an organisation?
What we miss in our obsession with studying the behaviours of the younger generation is that, like our customers, they have a choice and they are exercising their choice
Many organisations have been able to change the mindset that makes you think that to be successful, you cannot treat your employees as less important than your customers
We all know that we operate in two markets - the market for customers and the market for talent. Both these markets have changed significantly. The changes in the market for customers have been well chronicled and needs no illustration. For most products and services, we are in a ‘buyer’s market’ where the customer has a choice – the balance of power is in favour of the customer.
The talent market has not been studied as well, particularly by managers in organisations, partly because the customer is looked upon as ‘somebody else’, while talent is ‘us’! It is always easier to study others than ourselves. When we look at talent as ‘others’, we often slot people as Gen Y, baby boomers, Gen X and so on. While these are interesting constructs, they are meaningful only because of the context for these generations.
What we miss in our obsession with studying the behaviours of the younger generation is that, like our customers, they have a choice and they are exercising their choice. The balance of power has shifted.
Most organisations, not just the best workplaces, know that to win in the market for customers, they have to win in the talent market first. Most organisations have specific initiatives that they have launched to win in the talent market, just like the steps they have taken to win in the market for customers.
Yet, most of our organisations have different standards when it comes to customers and employees. Here are some illustrations:
1. Customer is always right, employees are sometimes right
It seems everyone understands that the customer is the king. Who is an employee? The accepted axiom is that even if a customer is wrong, apologise first and figure out what to do later. The best workplaces we study are often obsessed about ensuring the right customer experience, but not at the cost of the employee. In one of the best workplaces, the global CEO of the company flew down to inform one of their biggest customers in the local country office that his business was no longer solicited because he mistreated an employee.
2. No hierarchy for customers, only for employees
In a recent interaction with a manufacturing organisation, the senior management team opined that while it was not easy for a junior person to walk into the cabin of a senior executive without an appointment, even the junior-most person would find the doors of the senior-most executive open – if he said he was from a customer’s organisation. In contrast, over 80 per cent of employees in the global best workplaces list of Great Place to Work® Institute say that management is approachable, easy to talk with.
3. Proactive communication versus reactive justification
Some months ago, the manufacturer of my car wrote to me stating that based on their internal checks, as a measure of abundant caution, they would like to change one part. The part was working well and I was impressed that this company was going to such lengths. Much later, I read in the newspapers that they had recalled/replaced this part in thousands of cars of a particular model. It was a great feeling that I got to know from them before I got to know from the newspaper. But, had they informed their own employees first? Whether it is Cadbury or Mindtree, employees of best workplaces know that they will hear both good and bad news first from their managers.
4. Individualised treatment versus one size fits all
Every time you try and purchase something at Amazon.com, you are amazed by how books that you like are on top of the screen! Amazon tracks your reading choices - it does not try to force you to buy what they want to sell, it takes you to what you want to buy. How many times has an employee come with a request only to be told it cannot be sanctioned as per current policy! RMSI, one of the best workplaces we have studied, has a policy exception site - to enable employees to log in their requests for policy exceptions with reasons, so that management can transparently take decisions on policy exceptions.
5. Even an average customer is important
We will hate to break a commitment, even to a customer who is giving us average revenue. Priority will be given to commitments made to customers rather than commitments made to employees, particularly employees with “average” performance. We hear a lot about programmes for “strategic talent”, very little about average performers.
6. Instant gratification versus unnamed future rewards
If a customer cannot wait, we will have to stretch to meet his deadline. An employee has needs too, but our assumption seems to be that surely if he works hard and performs well, he will ultimately get what he deserves. (“Deserve before you desire”). Best workplaces like AmEx have published their compensation bands, so that employees know what they can hope to get based on what level of performance.
7. We exist to serve the customer; our employees exist to serve us!
Though expressed half in jest by senior managers in a workshop, this can very well summarise the mindset of senior managers in many organisations, which exist with the duality that the customer is the boss and the boss is the customer.
No amount of people or employee first slogans will help if our entrenched mindset reflects the above. What is interesting is that so many organisations have been able to change the mindset that comes in the way of recognising that to be successful; you cannot treat your employees as less important than your customers. The Ritz-Carlton hotel sums it up aptly when it refers to its employees as “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen”.
Prasenjit Bhattacharya is CEO of Great Place to Work® Institute, India. Views expressed are personal. Prasenjit can also be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org