Question: Who comes first, employees or customers?

by Jeff Hilimire on February 7, 2012

A hero* that I know asked me this question via email and I thought I’d answer this publicly as its something I care deeply about. He asked:

I’ve been thinking about something lately. I would imagine when you first started your business you were extremely focused on building your customer base and didn’t really have to worry too much about your employees. With your growth, how do you know find the balance of keeping employees happy while continuing to fulfill the needs of your customers. In your business model, where do your employees fit in with your customers? Who comes first? Without customers, you can’t build your team. Without a happy team, you can’t provide customer service. Right?

Great question.

The answer is actually very easy for me.

There’s an old joke/saying that people tell husbands, I’ve heard it a thousand times: Happy wife, happy life. While this is probably very sexist and half of you just unsubscribed from my blog, the reality is its true.  But its also true for any relationship, “happy partner, happy life”. Just doesn’t rhyme as well that way ;)

The premise is, if your partner is happy, then everything is going to be better. You’ll be happier having dinner at night. You’ll be happier because when you want to go do that thing with your friends, your partner will be more likely to be happy to let you go…as long as you’re treating him/her well.

The same applies to business. I’ve learned that employees that aren’t happy, that aren’t in the right position, that aren’t put in a place to work on things they are passionate about, aren’t going to be able to deliver their best effort. Which means the clients aren’t going to get the best work.

I’ve also learned, the hard way, what happens when you focus too much on the client and not enough on the staff. This mostly happens when you realize you have an abusive client. One that doesn’t respect the people on the other side of the phone. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, as a business owner its a very tricky situation.

You want the revenue. But its killing your staff. The right call is of course to “break up” with the client. The first time I did that it was like a revelation. The next time, it was much easier. And the improvement in morale and culture was palpable.

I work in a services business, and our people are our product. The old adage is, “our assets go down the elevator every night.” It’s a reminder for service-businesses that your business revolves around your people. Their happiness and fulfillment in their job is the only way to truly give your client the best service.

Plus, its the right thing to do, and I don’t want to lose sight of that aspect. When we were getting our business going in the early years and hiring folks, I remember very clearly sitting down with my partners and talking about how incredible it was that these people had decided to spend a large portion of their lives with us. And that we had an obligation to make our office and culture something that they enjoyed. Because wouldn’t it be a huge bummer if you dreaded going to work every day?

* My friend is a fire fighter, one of the true heroes in this world. God bless you, bud.  

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