Performance Ignited

To Boost Your Business Treat Employees as Well as Your Customers

How well are employees treated in your small business? Are employees treated as well as your customers are treated?

And, are all employees treated well, or are some employees treated better than others?

When employees are consistently treated with trust, dignity, and respect, they respond in kind. They care about their company, their colleagues, and their customers. Employees demonstrate that care by serving customers beautifully, solving problems nimbly, performing effectively, and working cooperatively.

You can’t expect stellar customer service from employees who feel distrusted and discounted. You can’t expect consistent top performance from employees who aren’t compensated fairly, given deserved responsibility or who see colleagues not carrying their fair share of the workload.

Related: This Food-Tech Startup's Secret Sauce: Employees First, Customers Second

As employees are treated, so will they treat your customers. Colleen Barrett, former president of Southwest Airlines, described that organization's philosophy succinctly. She said, “Employees are our first customers, passengers are our second customers!”

By treating Southwest's employees - their first customers - as royalty, those employees in turn treat Southwest's passengers - their second customers - beautifully.

This philosophy pays great dividends. My culture clients have consistently enjoyed 40 percent gains in both employee engagement and customer service, and 35 percent gains in results and profits within 18-24 months of their culture refinement.

However, this philosophy isn’t commonly practiced in organizations around the globe. I see employees treated as “second class citizens” more often than I see them treated as royalty!

Here’s an example. A retail store talked about how their employees were the “heart of the business.” The retail space was light, clean and well-stocked. Aisles were wide and well-marked with bright signage. Public rest rooms were clean and inviting. Even the parking lot sparkled - there was rarely any trash to be found in parking areas. Customers were impressed.

Employee space was a different matter. Stock rooms were cluttered and dark. Employee locker rooms were dirty, poorly lighted and poorly maintained. Trash bins overflowed. The break room was bleak, with old, uncomfortable furniture, junk food in vending machines and noisy machinery close by.

The message was clear - the company cares about customers; the company cares less about employees.

Related: 6 Secrets for Creating Fierce Employee and Customer Loyalty

Here’s another example. A manufacturing plant shared office space with corporate staff. The corporate staff entrance was beautifully open, bright and spacious. It featured the company’s products in spotlighted glass cases. Posters of customers using the company’s products were placed throughout the hallway. It had a museum feel to it. Corporate team members were impressed.

The manufacturing employee’s entrance was utilitarian. Team members were greeted by a grease-stained floor and an industrial turnstile that opened when their coded ID badge was scanned. Their hallway was poorly lighted. An old cork bulletin board was plastered with old, hard-to-read policies and announcements. No one paid any attention. A flashing red sign displayed how many reportable safety incidents had occurred in the last month. The noise from machinery made it difficult to have a conversation in that space.

The message was clear --some employees are more highly regarded than others.

I don’t think the employee spaces in these two organizations were intentionally dark and dingy. I think it was a matter of "no one noticed" and, over time, those spaces got darker and dingier.

How can you ensure you’re treating employees as your “first customer”?

First, engage them in this conversation. Ask them what they love about working in your small business, what they want you to keep doing. Then ask what they would love you to do differently to reduce frustrations and improve work conditions. Finally ask them what they would love you to begin doing that would make them appreciate working there even more.

You’ll get a list, and maybe a long list. Start making refinements based on their suggestions and on your own observations. Let team members know that you're listening and responding to their suggestions. Show them what you’re doing, and ask for their input and feedback on those refinements.

Keep engaging. Ask those three questions regularly. Observe closely. Refine systems, policies, and practices to honor employees. You’ll craft an inspired, high-performing, values-aligned work team.

Related: Richard Branson on the Secret to Virgin's Sustained Success