HR and Health & Safety
Sarah Pearce
Why you should put employees, not customers, first

Businesses should be taking an employee-centric approach to management rather than the traditional concept of putting customers first, says Sarah Pearce. 

The customer is always right. We’ve all heard this statement a million times in the business world. The idea that good, quality customer service is the most admirable goal in any industry, is a deep-rooted belief that underpins almost all business transactions. The basic premise is that we function in a buyer’s market and if the customer doesn’t get the best service at any cost, then they will take their business elsewhere and eventually if there are no customers, there will not be a need for a business at all. 

Over the last couple of years though, we are seeing more challenges to this philosophy and many top-level managers are adopting another approach. Championed primarily by Virgin founder Richard Branson, this idea puts employees at the top. Simply put, he states “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”

This is the type of idea that is worth exploring a little. It’s compelling in that it seems to pit the two groups against each other, and a manager must decide who comes first-the employee or the customer. But the more time you spend reflecting on this, you realize the bottom line is that these two goals do not have to be mutually exclusive.

In fact, when an employee-focused policy is put in place, it is actually very common to see a corresponding increase in customer satisfaction. This isn’t the obvious result one would expect so let’s take a look at how it works in action.

One of the most recognized brands for consistently providing exemplary customer satisfaction is Southwest Airlines. Their leadership philosophy? Put the employee’s happiness above customer satisfaction. In a blog post that explains their corporate culture, Southwest states that, “We believe if we treat our employees right, they will treat our customers right, and in turn that results in increased business and profits that make everyone happy.”

But these effects don’t simply occur when you state that employees come first, you must ensure that there is action behind the words. For example, Southwest is careful to select employees who are proactive and have the right attitude; they place more emphasis on this than experience and believe experience and duties can be taught more easily than a positive attitude. They also emphasize other core values such as promoting a culture that is fun and includes the customers and other employees to be active in their own experience. Additionally, they remind the employees to enjoy their tasks, have fun, and not take things too seriously. And Virgin and Southwest Airlines are far from the only companies that have caught on to this style of leadership.

Other heavy-hitters that put employees first include Google, Reebok, Patagonia, New Belgium Brewery, Campbell’s Soup, SuperMedia, Unisys, General Electric, Disney, Ernst & Young, and Coca-Cola.  

Deepak Chopra believes the rise in success for this leadership style is largely attributed to a great generational change. As he says it, “the future leaders are looking at the entire ecosystem of a business.” Really, this translates into a greater social awareness that places an importance on how a business treats its employees while also realizing that a happy employee is one that is going to go above and beyond to create a truly special customer experience. 

One great example happened at the Disney theme park when a small girl dropped her favorite doll in the mud. It’s simple to think that perhaps an employee would retrieve it for her, and maybe wipe it off and then go about their business. But that’s not what happened. They actually made the doll a new outfit, gave her a bath, styled her hair and took her photo with other Disney dolls. Her mother said it was “Pure magic.”

That is key because research shows that emotionally invested customers are three times more likely to be a repeat customer and recommend it to others. These signs indicate that emotionally invested staff in turn create emotionally invested clients. Create happy vibes within the organisation as well as externally for clients...and it's a win-win for everyone.

Sarah Pearce is a speaker, business coach, trainer and author. For more about her services visit  

Related Articles
Business travel equals employee happiness
A new study has revealed that business travel is key to employee happiness in New Zealand.   New research from for Business, the website connecting business travellers with the places to...
The Ten HR Commandments
Thai-Anh Cooper delivers her Ten HR Commandments for SMEs that can save business owners...
3 ways your business can thrive under the new government
Jenny Grace explains how to discover the strengths of your employees to improve your business performance...