Who Comes First: Customers or Employees?

Should companies put customers or employees at the center of their universe?

There are two competing thoughts on this question, as illustrated by Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson:

“The most important single thing is to focus obsessively on the customer. Our goal is to be Earth’s most customer-centric company.” — Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO

“Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” — Richard Branson, Virgin Group Founder

Delivering an enhanced customer experience has certainly become a growing focus for companies over the past few years, driven in large part by the “Amazon Effect.” 

A research study we conducted in March 2018 in partnership with BluJay Solutions (a Talking Logistics sponsor) showed that “To deliver an enhanced customer experience” is the main driver of innovation at high performance companies, including logistics service providers. This year’s study, which will be published in August, shows that trend continuing.

(For related commentaries, see “Customer Experience Driving Innovation For High-Performing Companies” and “The Missing Bookmark: Customer Experience Vs. Expectations

But for some companies, most notably Costco, delivering an enhanced customer experience is a byproduct of providing a great employee experience: 

“When you hire good people, and you provide good jobs and good wages and a career, good things are going to happen.” — James Sinegal, co-founder and former CEO of Costco

Should companies put customers or employees at the center of their universe? The easy answer is that both are important. Delighting one at the expense of the other is not good business. But if I had to choose between the two schools of thought, I would go with Branson and Sinegal instead of Bezos. Whether I’m at the supermarket, the post office, the airline check-in counter, or the Department of Motor Vehicles, a great experience for me begins with an employee that smiles and says hello to me, an employee who looks happy to be there and asks me in a friendly voice, “How can I help you today?”

What do you think? Which school of thought would you follow?