Who comes first: customers or employees?

Who comes first: customers or employees?

“The customer is always right.”

In France, businesses were told “the customer is never wrong.” In Germany, “the customer is king.” And in Japan, the customer is a god.” Catchy, sure, but no matter how you say it, the customer is not always right, right? So maybe that’s why the phrase evolved into “the customer comes first.”

In 1955, ad man David Ogilvy animated the statement into: “The customer isn’t a moron. She is your wife.” It’s an unusual, attention-getting proclamation, but all Ogilvy meant was that marketers should stop insulting their customers’ intelligence with misleading, exaggerated claims. Rather, they should communicate authentically, with empathy.

Marketing strategist Austin McGhie sharpened the concept even further into the powerful and provocative line “The customer is you.” Which marketing pro James Liebert clarified by adding, “If we want to understand our customers, we’re going to have to understand them extremely well.”

But I digress. While I 100% agree with the critical importance of understanding your customers and treating them honestly, with respect and compassion, I also believe the way to build customer loyalty is to put your team members first. To consistently deliver excellent customer experiences, we need teams who are motivated by consistently positive employee experiences.

A brief history of experience: From UX to CX and now EX

Website designers are all about user experience (UX), businesses have historically focused on customer experience (CX) and leaders should zero in on employee experience (EX): the observations, perceptions and feelings a person has while working for your company. From the first interview on, employee experience influences job satisfaction, engagement, sense of belonging, purpose and, ultimately, performance and retention.

And since McKinsey says the “great attrition” isn’t going to let up anytime soon — 40% of survey respondents said they’re somewhat likely to quit in the next six months — we need to double down on creating positive experiences to keep our team members feeling respected, supported and empowered. And to keep our team members!

Employee experience is so important right now that a new position has evolved: employee engagement manager. According to LinkedIn, 10,000 companies in the US are looking to hire an employee engagement manager, with nearly 500 jobs posted on some days in December. This person’s responsibilities are to create positive, collaborative and productive employee experiences. Of course, we all can’t bring on a dedicated person for the job, but we can make experiences better for our team members. Start by recognizing the following.

Needs are changing

Your company culture, policies and processes might have been successful a few years ago, but whether you’re working in person, remote or hybrid, your team members’ wants and needs have changed. Your culture needs to evolve, too. January is a good time to step back, survey and review the many aspects of your culture that impact employee experience: the social, work and organizational elements. If there were holes before, they’ll be craters now — and your people may no longer be willing to overlook them.

For example, team members might not care as much about perks like free coffee and parking. Now, they might be more interested in learning opportunities, wellness benefits, a growth path, flexible schedules and childcare services. Consider the results of a recent MIT Sloan Management survey: 45% of people who left their jobs in 2021 did so to care for a family member, and the same percentage is considering quitting their job because of family demands.

So as you plan for 2022 and beyond, think about how you can help your team members manage the physical and emotional challenges of an uncertain world, raising children and caring for loved ones of all ages. While on-site childcare may not be realistic, how about group discounts or reimbursements for daycare or home health care? Or flexible hours and locations so working parents can manage family and carpools? Or health care and wellness programs? Or tuition reimbursement or enrollment in online training courses?

At DS+CO, our team members can arrange for the school bus or rides to drop their children off at the office after school, and they can play quietly or do homework while their parents finish up for the day. We provide a tuition discount at Roberts Wesleyan College, subscriptions to online education programs, access to the Calm wellness app and virtual yoga and mindfulness classes, among other employee perks.

These benefits go a long way toward building positive experiences and may be more meaningful than traditional offerings and even compensation. Because when your emphasis is entirely on bonuses and salary, you can give the message that your people are commodities and your connections are transactional. Not a great way to build commitment and loyalty, and the opposite of the sense of belonging and shared purpose that’s so important these days.

Respect trumps all

If you could work on only one element of employee experience, think about the MIT Sloan Management analysis of employee reviews on Glassdoor. Of 150 aspects studied, respect is the single best predictor of a company’s culture score. By a long shot. Feeling respected at work is about 18 times more important than expected responses like flexible schedules and likable coworkers.

More than anything, people want to feel important and taken seriously. They want to be recognized for what they contribute now and valued for what they can learn to do in the future. They want the company to invest in them and believe in them. You may not be able to promote everyone into a new role, but you can provide training and new responsibilities within current positions. You can acknowledge and celebrate growth and progress along the career journey.

At Monro Auto Service and Tire Centers, entry-level mechanics are called “general service technicians.” As they gain experience, they become “technicians” and then “technical service managers.” In this way, their achievements are acknowledged and celebrated and they gain respect and confidence in their value to the organization. Similarly, Wegmans and Trader Joe’s earn high marks for both respect and overall culture, with clear growth paths and empowered employees — especially notable in an industry with notoriously low culture scores.

After respect, supportive leadership is the second most predictive marker of a high-rated culture. Employees want to know their manager has their back. Do your managers listen and respond to team members, help remove obstacles and create individual paths forward? Do they take a deep, genuine interest in each person’s sense of purpose and overall well-being? Our best leaders are advocates who champion their team members. Their eyes light up with pride when they tell me about a direct report’s accomplishments. It’s a high bar, for sure. And if you’re working in new ways, your managers might need some retraining to learn to lead and inspire in hybrid and remote environments.

The Good Jobs Strategy is a good strategy

The Good Jobs Strategy, designed by MIT business professor Zeynep Ton, creates exceptional experiences for employees and customers. Participating companies have high expectations of their people and their people have high expectations of the company. The system involves operational choices that increase productivity, contribution, motivation — and positive employee experiences. Things like focusing and simplifying offerings, standardizing processes and empowering employees to make decisions, operating with wiggle room and investing in people.

By doing right by their employees, these companies are powered by highly capable teams who drive continuously improving performance. A win-win. Look, even in the best of times, a “bad jobs strategy” with authoritarian leaders and lack of opportunity isn’t viable. Especially not now. Just last week, the NY Times ran an article titled “No More Working for Jerks!”

To compete for top talent, companies have started experimenting with how to create better employee experiences. They’re putting their people first. They’re breaking down industrial-age employment constructs that no longer make sense. I’ve seen dozens of reports of businesses and even whole countries testing a four-day work week, for example — unimaginable a few years ago. And when it comes to re-imagining the workplace, I’d rather be the company offering experiences that attract and retain the best people, wouldn’t you?

Lauren Dixon is board chair of Dixon Schwabl + Co., a marketing communications firm, which has  been honored as a Best Place to Work.