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Who comes first, the customer or employee?

A state-of-the-art commercial coffee machine has pride of place in the open-plan offices of a luxury property rental and management company in London.

“That machine was our biggest investment at the time,” says the chief operations officer who hired a barista from a trendy café for a day to show staff how to use it. “It was one reason our employees looked forward to coming in to work in the morning.”

The traditional workplace has changed out of all recognition in recent decades. Today’s employers know that it takes more than good pay to attract the best – and the war for talent means acting on this knowledge is more vital than ever.

Traditionally, most companies believed that creating a positive customer experience (CX) was the cornerstone of success. Now, from pre-hire to retire, companies are beginning to pay as much attention to “employee experience” (EX).

Giving employees the sort of treatment traditionally reserved for paying customers is the key to EX design, which is both an art and a science and should be led by HR. No employer can hope to be competitive unless they embrace the “consumerisation of work”.

Go Walkabout

Clearly, attracting top talent requires more than having a swanky coffee machine, as the COO of the property management company readily acknowledges.

“The machine was largely symbolic, like our ping pong table and comfy sofas. They are visible signs that the leadership of our company cares about its employees,” he says. “But it’s the invisible things that really make the difference.”

The key “invisible” for him was ensuring the company’s employees feel that their “contribution is valued and that they don’t just feel like a jobsworth”.

This applies across the company, from the well-paid tech wizards in the plush offices to those out cleaning clients’ houses who don’t see much of the coffee machine.

To ‘experience’ the work of the company’s less-skilled employees and understand their concerns, this means getting out of the office. “I spend a lot of time with the cleaning staff, the drivers and at the warehouse doing their sort of work.”

Richard Branson calls this “the walkabout” – managing by getting out and about and talking to staff and customers, with a notebook in his back pocket to jot down their feedback.

Who Comes First – the Customer or the Employee?

Branson said in a 2014 interview that his Virgin brand, which prides itself on customer service, actually puts its employees first and expressed surprise that this thinking still “doesn’t go without saying at some companies”.

This is probably because employee-centric management goes against decades-old business wisdom. It might seem counterintuitive, but it is not based on woolly thinking. Studies have proven the correlation between higher employee engagement and positive customer ratings. In other words, it makes good business sense.

As Branson – one of the world’s most successful serial entrepreneurs – explained: “If the person who works at your company is 100 per cent proud of the job they’re doing, if you give them the tools to do a good job, they’re proud of the brand, if they were looked after, if they’re treated well, then they’re going to be smiling, they’re going to be happy and therefore the customer will have a nice experience.”

In sum, he said: “My philosophy has always been if you can put staff first, your customers second and shareholders third, effectively, in the end the shareholders do well, the customers do better, and your staff remains happy.”

Good EX is vital in the services and hospitality sector where employees are the company’s interface with the customer. As such, they spearhead the company’s brand and bring it to life. A restaurant that promotes itself as family-friendly won’t fare well if it has grumpy waiters that scowl at children.

But good EX design is a must across virtually every industry. Like Branson, Adobe Systems, the American multinational computer software company, was ahead of the curve in seeing the critical connection between customer and employee experience. In 2016, it became one of the first companies to combine these two functions by creating a new Customer and Employee Experience department.

As Adobe explained, “satisfied and engaged employees are more likely to give their best effort and represent the brand well, while satisfied customers are happier and easier to work with”.

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