The Adaptive Agency Blog

Don’t Let “The Customer Comes First” Backfire

by | Nov 10, 2023 | Culture, Talent

One of the most common phrases we hear businesses repeat is the timeless adage, “The customer comes first!”

And it’s true, in the sense that you need to put your customers’ well-being before your own. Because if you lose your customers, you lose your business.

That makes perfect sense when you’re a solopreneur. But the bigger your organization gets, the more myopic that motto becomes. Here’s why.


Someone is talking to your customers, and they may or may not care.

As soon as you hire someone, your control over customer interaction begins to wane. By the time you’ve hired 10 people, you might only be handling 10% of customer value production. The CEO of a 5000-person company who says, “The customer comes first,” has no way to know, let alone ensure, that it’s a true statement.

So, who is talking to your customers, and what’s their motivation?

If you think it doesn’t matter because you’re the boss and you said so, you don’t know the first thing about human motivation, and your customers are not nearly as happy as they could be.

You probably have a higher-than-average employee churn and, consequently, a higher-than-average customer churn.

So, putting the customer first is the job of the employees. That means, from your standpoint, the employees come first.

In other words, take care of the people who take care of the customers. That’s how you put the customer first.

Let’s simplify this down to two axes

  1. You need to hire the right people.
  2. Those people need the right motivation.


The Right People 

The right person is naturally motivated to do their best. They’re not perfect, and they probably need skills development. But they want to do well for reasons they don’t even understand.

They also have good macro-skills. They’re more self-aware, they have drive, they solve problems, and they communicate well. They learn relatively fast, and they have decent common sense. They grasp the big picture better and they’re willing to bend arbitrary rules to get good results.


The Wrong People 

By contrast, these folks show up just to get a paycheck. They don’t see a connection between their results and their value. Instead, they think that keeping the rules or checking their boxes makes them valuable.

They rapidly adapt to a supervisor’s rules and moods. They know how to stay out of trouble. They don’t swing at pitches because it’s safer to get walked. They’ll do what they’re told (to a point) and keep showing up because they’re afraid to find something else.


Feeling Used 

Some bosses lord over their employees. They want their employees to feel subordinate. Doing what they’re told is desirable and challenging the status quo is dangerous. At the end of the day, they’re just resources to produce what the boss wants. It’s business, right?

(I know of one restaurant manager who, on his first day, posted 19 pages of rules on the wall for the employees to memorize. It was literally impossible for anyone to be good enough, which gave the manager unlimited power to grind his employees into the dirt.)

Guess what the customer experience is like?


Feeling Valued 

On the other hand, some bosses have a combination of confidence, humility, and love that allows them to liberate and elevate their employees. These employees feel valued, and their performance improves as a consequence.


Back to Customers 

So, looking at the chart, which employees do you suppose “put the customer first?” Which ones treat customers as well as you would? Or possibly even better?

The boss’s job is to hire the right people and figure out how to make them feel valued. Then define success as value provided to and recognized by the customer, resulting in lower customer churn, more repeat purchases, more referrals, and higher Customer Lifetime Value.

Then, turn them loose on it and help them improve.

  • But what if that means you need to pay $2 more per hour for a customer service person? 
  • What if it means you need to get help improving your interview process? 
  • What if it means you have to outsource some low-value tasks so you can spend more time elevating your people? 

Do it. Do anything but crack the whip harder. When people are afraid or constrained, they become artificially slower and dumber, which is the worst thing for your business and for your customers.

And for the record, the team members in our call center never talk about “the customers.” They always talk about “my customers.” And they mean it. If we try to go around them or take away their ability to do their best for a customer, we get hot pushback.

What could be better than that?