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Truth and Lies of Customer-First Strategies

For decades experts have claimed that putting your customers first propels increased customer loyalty. As a result, a customer-first focus has driven company sales and marketing strategies.

Fast-growing companies see growth quite differently. Over the past two years, I’ve interviewed founders and CEOs of privately held companies in the top 1% of their growth trajectory. During our conversations, they identified the strategies that most heavily impact their growth — and putting customers first was rarely mentioned.

Why not customer-first?

“Work” historically has had a bad rap — something people had to do for money. In the 21st-century economy, evolved leaders are challenging this concept because they value their employees and want to create a workplace that enables employee growth. They show up with a greater sense of pride knowing that putting employees first will drive new ways to increase growth.

It’s not just small companies re-evaluating the customer-first approach. Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, declared, “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.”

Hilton also works tirelessly to become a place where employees are the priority. They moved from 33rd on the 2018 Great Places to Work List to first on the 2019 list. Matt Schuyler, Hilton’s CHRO, provided more context for its employee-first mantra. “Reduced turnover means a more engaged group of team members serving our guests. They are happy. They provide better service in the moment. They’ve got a bounce in their step when walking around the property. And that makes a massive difference when it comes to guest satisfaction.”

Why yes to employee-first?

Many believe that driving company growth requires employee development and customer strategies working in tandem as top priorities. However, recent research indicates employees have to come first.

An organization’s culture is more important than its marketing or sales strategy. It’s the people who perform the work and adapt to changes that make the brand come alive. These people should serve clients with joy, not a sense of duty.

Fast-growth incorporates effective marketing and sales tactics; however, growth-focused leaders put an emphasis on the employee experience — the culture — to drive growth.

Progressive leaders answered this question: “Which do you believe is most important: employees or customers?” After more than 300 interviews, 94% put employees first, with some exclaiming, “It’s absolutely employees first.”

Ben Wright, CEO of Velocity Global, shared how the company has grown 39,817% over the past three years. This company specializes in global recruiting, immigration, payroll and consulting to help companies expand overseas. Wright said, “I believe that happy employees make happy clients so, it’s a win-win. People feed off of our energy, and if we are bringing our best selves to work every day, clients feel it.” Creating a growth culture requires building an employee-first organization that’s customer-centric, too. With this approach, you can make the right call in every situation.

Three customer-first lies:

  1. Money buys employee loyalty. An agreement to pay an employee for hours worked doesn’t mean you’re buying his or her loyalty. If the only reason people work for you is money, you don’t have the kind of culture that will drive lasting growth. Money isn’t a driver for many people. In a 2016 study by Fidelity Investments, 58% of millennials and 53% of Gen X cite “improved quality of work-life” as more important than financial benefits. When employees feel taken care of, they’ll take care of customers.
  2. Responsibility is enough. Workers who approach their work responsibly will get their tasks done. These workers, however, may not be willing to put in the effort to add value when necessary. Recent research proves that 88% of fast-growth leaders want employees to go beyond responsibility and take ownership of their work. Leaders who inspire people to feel like owners gain deeper critical thinking and risk-taking from their teams. There’s a big gap between those who take responsibility for their work and those who take ownership.
  3. Employees’ needs come after customers’ needs. If you put customers’ needs first, you’ll make choices differently than if employees come first. For example, if there’s an incident of sexual harassment at work, those who put customers first may sweep it under the rug. An employee-first organization understands the importance of transparency and would choose to share how the company is addressing sexual harassment to create a safer workplace.

Join Gene at the 2019 Imagine Your Workplace Conference and discover how strong leadership can inspire teams to go beyond responsibility to take full ownership in their work, which leads to growth for your organization.

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Gene Hammett
An experienced entrepreneur and founder of several multi-million dollar businesses, Gene now works with entrepreneurs to help them master their business so they can do work that matters. Gene is an author and hosts the podcast: Leaders in the Trenches. www.genehammett.com
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