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Are You Employee-Centric or Customer-Centric?

Looking for the sweet spot between client obligations and employee morale.

“Take care of your employees and they’ll take care of your customers.” —Richard Branson

“If we end up on one of those Great Places to Work lists, we’ve really screwed up somewhere along the way.” —Jeff Bezos

“We can measure and monetize happiness. Happiness is good for the bottom line.” —Shawn Acor

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Americans are paradoxical in their business opinions. We’re at once in love with the employer who gives their employees unlimited PTO while bragging about the low prices we pay for the latest electronic gadgets. Is it possible to treat our employees like gold while still making our customers feel like they’re #1?

Employee vs. customer centrism seems to vary widely across industries. Businesses often display attitudes toward their employees around two competing theories: Theory X states that employees are liabilities and, if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile, while Theory Y declares employees are our greatest asset and we should invest in them and growth will follow suit. Even within companies there may be a Theory X or Theory Y divide based on role. Netflix famously described its culture a few years ago as incredibly employee-centric while casually mentioning on the second slide that “freedom and responsibility applies to our salaried employees. Our hourly employees are important, but have more structured job roles.” That little aside in their slide deck may account for a small percentage of Netflix’s headcount, but the average CI business has over 50 percent of its workforce engaged in these “more structured” roles like installer, service tech, etc.

Also by Henry Clifford: Why Your Clients Hate Fine Print and Surprises

In CI, we’re all better off acting in an employee-centric fashion. If we let customers have their way, our folks would burn out and quit. We have to strike a balance. I don’t want a workplace where I know our folks are sure to eventually burn out. That’s purely selfish on my part and any business owner has the responsibility to set their own tone. I just happen to think that using people up and discarding them is just plain wrong. That’s why we focus so heavily on training and partnering with companies like Parasol [full disclosure — I’m a co-founder of Parasol] to deal with customer concerns 24/7. The happier our employees, the happier our customers.

We’ve struggled with this employee vs. customer-centric balance over the years. I can remember asking a group of Livewire employees to come up with their own policies for on-call staff after hours. We needed them to determine the schedule, what constituted an on-call emergency, etc. They came up with a very liberal policy where they would only respond to a narrow set of issues after hours and wanted an extremely high level of compensation for being on-call. Our leadership team had to strike a balance with the group and ended up with a compromise that left everyone feeling (hopefully) like they’d gotten a fair shake.

Maybe balance is the answer. If we focus exclusively on customer happiness in CI, our employees would quit due to the grind of our high-end clientele. Conversely, when we put company policy making 100 percent in the hands of our front-line staff, our quality of service takes a nosedive due to us setting a low bar for 5-star service delivery.

Also by Henry Clifford: How Do I Staff My Sales Team?

If we’re always keeping the two extremes of customer and employee centrism in mind as we steer our businesses forward, we can use them to inform how to create and nurture our culture. Hopefully we can all make our companies a little better by using this litmus test moving forward.

Where does your business fall on the customer- vs. employee-centric continuum?

Stay frosty, and see you in the field.