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When “Customer First” becomes “Employee Last,” Everyone Loses

What happens when an organization’s leadership is so focused on the customers that they forget to care for their employees? 

That might seem like an odd question. Who would want to pit employees against consumers? But consider this case study: 

The “Employee Last” Approach

I was a director at a large non-profit organization focused on community support and development. The executive team had decided not mentor or meet regularly with any of the staff because “their only job” was to interface with the community. On one hand, I can understand their logic; they were focusing all their energy on the people they were there to help. 

But can you find the hole in their approach? 

The rest of their team, many of whom were not as experienced in their field, were likewise expected to impact the community. The leaders at the top were removing a crucial ingredient of mentorship and growth that fuels a thriving culture. The rest of us quickly realized that we were expected to do our own development on our own time, and overall job satisfaction suffered.

The executive team’s paradigm seems logical at first glance – prioritize the customer above all. However, this approach often leads to a critical oversight: neglecting the very employees who are meant to serve these customers.

The Downfall of 'Employee Last' Approach

No leader sets out to be an "Employee Last" organization, but it can happen if the workplace culture inadvertently creates a gap in mentorship, development, and support. This lack of investment in employee growth not only stunts the team's potential but also indirectly affects customer service. Without a nurtured and growing workforce, the quality of service, innovation, and the ability to meet customer needs diminishes

The Role of Managers in Bridging the Gap

Reframing this narrative is essential. Managers, positioned uniquely between the executive vision and the front-line employees, are key to bridging this gap. Their role extends beyond task management; it's about cultivating a work environment where employees are valued, developed, and equipped to deliver exceptional service to customers.

In our recent Culture Lab’s Podcast Dan Kasper talked with Ben Utecht about the incredible value a good manager has on a company's overall culture. It’s been proven that frontline managers have more of an impact on culture, but teams and companies are still not setting them up for success. Ben and Dan discuss how telling a different story can create a culture of transformation rather than stagnation. 

In the case study above, the narrative was, “Customer first means top leaders have no time for paid staff.” This is a story based on a scarcity mindset. Flipping that narrative, we might instead say, “We invest heavily in our workforce so that the customer can come first.” 

Let’s look at some concrete ways organizations can invest in their people.   

Empowering Managers for Employee Growth

Training and Development: Launch a comprehensive training program for managers focusing on soft skills such as active listening, emotional intelligence, and conflict resolution. Consider regular workshops, online courses, or even mentorship programs where managers can learn and practice these crucial skills in real-world scenarios.

Regular Engagement: Schedule monthly one-on-one meetings between managers and their team members, dedicated solely to discussing personal growth and career aspirations. These should be distinct from performance reviews, providing a safe space for employees to express their professional desires and challenges.

Empowerment and Autonomy: Initiate a 'Manager's Innovation Day' every quarter, where managers can present new ideas that benefit both the business and their teams. Encourage creative solutions for workplace challenges and implement the best ideas, giving credit to the managers and their teams.

Recognition of Leadership Excellence: Create a 'Leadership Impact Award' to be given quarterly to a manager who has demonstrated exceptional skill in balancing customer needs with team development. Include testimonials from team members and measurable impacts on team morale and customer satisfaction in the selection criteria.

Feedback Mechanisms: Develop an anonymous feedback tool specifically for employees to share their thoughts on management practices. Use this tool to gather insights on what's working and what needs improvement from the employee's perspective, and share these insights with managers regularly for them to act upon.

By implementing these concrete steps, organizations can foster a culture where managers are not just operational leads but also champions of employee growth and satisfaction, ultimately contributing to a more balanced and effective workplace.

Instill's Contribution to a Balanced Workplace

Instill's Culture Operating System™ offers vital support in achieving this balance. It gives managers insights into team dynamics and employee engagement, enabling them to make informed decisions that align with customer satisfaction and employee well-being. With tools like Instill Sense™ and Culture Vital Signs™, managers can effectively monitor and enhance the work environment, ensuring that 'customer first' never translates to 'employee last.'

Prioritizing customers is undeniably important, but it shouldn't come at the expense of employee well-being. A successful organization recognizes that employee satisfaction is intrinsically linked to customer satisfaction. Empowering managers to nurture their teams, with support from tools like Instill, is key to creating a harmonious and productive workplace where both customers and employees feel valued.


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