Happy Employees or Happy Customers – Which Comes First?

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In school, you discuss employee morale in HR courses and customer morale in Marketing courses. Should they really be separate?

Howard Schultz of Starbucks said: “We built the Starbucks brand first with our people, not with the consumers. Because we believed that the best way to meet and exceed the expectations of our customers was to hire and train great people, we invested in employees.”

For me, Starbucks has always been top-of-mind when I think about how powerfully employees (HR) impact an overall brand experience (marketing). Starbucks’ leadership seems to be very focused on a simple equation – happy employees + clear brand direction + consistently good product = happy loyal (addicted) customers. Very early on, Starbucks was known for the benefits they gave to all employees – part time included. But beyond health insurance, the company leadership has created a culture of support, highlighted by Steve Cooper in 2012 and by Dr. Noelle Nelson in her book “Make More Money by Making Your Employees Happy”. Several years ago, Starbucks executives visited their coffee shops and noticed that even good employees were sometimes losing their tempers when faced with agitated customers. Instead of coming down on the individual employees, they developed new training material that eliminated the stress of these situations. The executives at Starbucks found what was making their employees unhappy and empowered them with the support they needed to put a smile back on their faces.

Interestingly, Apple also knows that keeping its talent happy is critical to keeping its customers happy. The tech giant is known for industry leading product design, and its executives understand that Apple’s reputation hinges on retaining the best and brightest minds in the industry. What do bright minds need? New challenges. Enter Apple Car. There is a ton of talk about whether or not an Apple car makes sense (Read for a quick overview: http://www.cnbc.com/id/102455350#.), but I’ve been paying attention to the story because I’m interested in the rumors that the Apple car project is a practical way for Apple to keep its best talent from being poached by Tesla and other hot companies. An uber expensive, high-profile project just to keep your best employees? Why not? After all, would Apple be Apple without those people?

So which comes first – the happy employee or the happy customer? Is one more important than the other? I think the Starbucks and Apple examples suggest that happy employees are critical to the long-term happiness of your customers.

Though it seems pervasive, not every business leader believes “the customer is always right”. As an account executive, I very clearly remember the first time my manager took my side in a discussion and said the client was wrong. It was so empowering. That isn’t to say that we didn’t want a happy, satisfied client – that is always the goal. But my manager also cared about me, so I felt supported and able to deal with the challenge.

As marketers, we’re taught to stay laser focused on the customer experience. Let’s not forget that our own experience within the company is a critical piece of that puzzle.

What other companies are good at this? Who should we be watching?

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