Actually, the Customer Is Not Always Right

This will be music to the ears of anyone who's ever worked in customer service. Is this old managerial adage doing companies more harm than good?

Simon Sinek: I think it’s funny when we are given advice to always put the customer first. That means employees come second inherently if you’re going to put customer first. Customers come and go. Obviously we want to work to keep them loyal but its employees who spend more time at work than they do with their families. It’s employees who are asking to give their blood and sweat and tears to advance our vision. And so it’s a leader’s responsibility to take care of the people first and the people will take care of each other and the customer. Any leader who prioritizes a customer literally saying I care more about an external constituency than I do about the people who are actually working here. The funny thing is a company like Southwest Airlines, a company like Costco that are renowned for their customer service as matters of policy do not believe the customer is always right. They do not believe that the customer comes first. The irony is is these great customer service companies actually care first about their own people, their employees and they expect their employees to care about their customers.

Let me tell you a story, a true story. Some months ago I stayed at the Four Seasons in Las Vegas. It is a wonderful hotel and the reason it’s a wonderful hotel is not because of the fancy beds. Any hotel can buy a fancy bed. It’s because of the people who work there. Now when you walk the halls of the Four Seasons and someone says hello to you, you really get the sense that they wanted to say hello, not that they were told to say hello. So in the lobby of the Four Seasons they have a coffee bar and one afternoon I went to buy a cup of coffee and I happened to be served by a barista named Noah. Noah was wonderful. He was fantastic. He was friendly. He was funny. He was engaging. I think I ended up giving a 100 percent tip. And so as is my way I asked Noah do you like your job here? And Noah said I love my job here. So I followed up and said what is it that the Four Seasons is doing that would make you say to me I love my job? And without skipping a beat he said throughout the day managers will walk past me and ask me how I’m doing.

They’ll ask me if I need anything to do my job any better. He said not just my manager, any manager. And then he said something magical. He said I also work at Caesar’s Palace and there the managers walk past and make sure we’re doing everything right. They catch is if we’re doing anything wrong.
There I just try to get through the day. I keep my head below the radar and I just want to cash my paycheck. Same person. And the customer will have a different experience not because of Noah. Noah is a good guy. The customer will have a different experience because of how the management regards Noah. Does management believe Noah is the number one priority or does management believe that the customer is the number one priority? And again the irony is is it’s the organization that believes that Noah is more important that then Noah is better capable of taking care of the customer. It is a linear process and I think so many people in business forget that. Yes, of course ultimately you want the customer to be happy. Of course. But the methodology is actually to prioritize the wellbeing of our people.

I think the wrong thinking about customers comes from the fact that we look at results more than we look at process. Results are much easier to measure and so we talk about profit first. That’s because it’s easy to measure. We talk about, we prioritize literally money over trust because how do you measure trust? It’s more difficult. The same with customer service. The result would be great customer service but the process is the long, hard work of building a strong culture in which the people take care of each other so that they can take care of the customer. That, it’s more ethereal and harder to measure. I can measure customer loyalty, customer service and sales and return business and things like that. So I think it’s human nature to go to the thing that we can easily see and easily count. And in the case of customer service that would be the end product, not the process that got us there.

The tired, old adage many businesses run by is that "the customer is always right", but Simon Sinek is here to tell us we’ve got it all wrong. All companies must make and increase profits to survive, but what’s missing is the understanding of it as a linear process. Rather than staring at the end goal, it literally pays to see it as a chain effect. When managers put their employees first, employees are empowered to deliver the ideal customer service a top company would strives for. Through an anecdote about one service industry worker who is employed at two differently run establishments, Sinek illuminates how the best managerial method is to prioritize the wellbeing of employees first. Simon Sinek's most recent book is Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.

Simon Sinek's most recent book is Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.

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