The Employees First Approach

The Employees First Approach“Take care of your employees, and they’ll take care of your customers.” This quote from J.W. Marriott, Jr. in the 1997 book, The Spirit to Serve: Marriott’s Way, not only rings true throughout the well-known hotel chain but in other successful companies as well. Similarly, I had the pleasure to attend one of Baxter Credit Union’s (BCU) business-partner days in the mid-Nineties where a video from their past CEO, Rex Johnson, was shown. One comment that stood out was when he exclaimed that the culture of the organization was built around a simple idea:

Happy employees equals happy members.

Almost a decade later I attended a presentation given by a member of Office Depot’s Business Services Division. He claimed that much of Office Depot’s past success stemmed from the fact that the company concentrates on its staff so that they can concentrate on the customers.

This trifecta of comments isn’t just lip service. I know from both personal and vicarious experience that all three of these organizations adhere to and practice this belief. These companies aren’t immune to problems because of this philosophy but are able to avoid many pitfalls because of it. Some of the mistakes that are made can be attributed to times when they have failed to adhere to the essence of the culture.

Conversely, a president I witnessed about a decade ago from another organization frequently commented that the philosophy of “staff first” was flawed. He felt that long-term success meant everyone in the organization, including all management levels, were required to concentrate 100% on the customer. He believed this so whole-heartedly that he made himself available to every client of the institution. During events he would liberally pass out his business cards telling customers that if they ever had a problem, no matter how big or small, to call him directly and he would personally take care of it.

He held true to that promise. When a customer called him with a problem, no matter how menial or whether the complaint was substantiated, he would storm out of his office and rant to the people who he felt were responsible. The problem usually was fixed but with a major side effect — low morale. Over time this low morale grew close to the point of mutiny and, thus, increasingly lower levels of customer service. This leader lasted about a year before he was made available for other employment by the CEO. I was told that staff celebrated his departure by singing through the halls “Ding-dong the bastard’s gone!” How bad does a culture have to be to illicit that type of response?!

Some may ask what’s wrong with a leader demanding a high-level of customer service? The answer, is nothing as long as it’s done in the proper manner.

A number of type-A managers feel that it’s too soft of an approach or a sign of weakness to concentrate on employee well-being. The fact is that authoritarian management is the easy path. Fostering the growth of your people and giving them the mentality and tools to take care of your customers takes commitment and is far from being “soft.”

Using our last example, there was only one person in the organization focused on the customer — the president. Although his intentions may have been worthy, his actions drew the focus of his staff away from the client. Instead of concentrating on offering good service, the employees were thinking of the repercussions of making a mistake. Many staff members would spend their time concentrating on how to please the boss and escape disciplinary action, gossiping on how unhappy they were, and searching through job boards on company time in the hopes of finding a better place to work. Wherever their focus was, it’s doubtful that it was on the customer.

Organizations such as Marriott create an environment where frontline workers can focus externally — on the customer — rather than internally — on management. Does this mean allowing employees to run free without supervision to get away with whatever they want? Certainly not. Like a good parent, good management empowers their employees by enabling them with boundaries. Those boundaries are generally in the form of service standards, goals, incentives, and clear expectations.

Good leaders reinforce company philosophy with staff and then let them go on their own. As long as the staff stays true to the core of the philosophy they are left to make their own judgments. Managers are there as mentors to provide guidance when needed. Even when mistakes are made they are used as learning experiences rather than opportunities to reprimand, assuming the mistake was made in the course of attempting to stay true to the company philosophy.

How does your organization focus on your employees in order to achieve success in customer service?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *