Now It's The Employee (not the Customer) Who's Always Right!


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It’s such a time-honored maxim it seems all but ordained by God. The customer is always right! Yes, a company’s most desirable objective must always be to keep its customers both loyal and happy. Certainly, it’s the secret to business success.

And how does one achieve this? By paying attention to your customers, i. e. , serving them, listening, adjusting, responding. You do whatever they say, making sure your employees do the same. The customer pays the freight, after all… they must forever be number one.

So that makes a lot of sense, n’est-ce pas? “Good Business 101. Then again, hell, hmmm… maybe not! One major US airline company may be an indication that this long-held truism should be shipped out to relic-dom. At this company, you see, it seems the customer ain't always right at all—it’s the employee!

Let’s try a little quiz: Name the most successful major airline in America today, American, you say? Nah. United? Uh-uh. Delta? TWA? US Air? Wrong, wrong, wrong again! The very best airline today is a relative upstart called Southwest, based in Phoenix of all places. In fact, it’s the ONLY major airline to turn a profit in each of the last 25 years.

Southwest leads its industry in quite a few categories: It’s tops in price per earnings, for example (with a 27 rating it compares pretty well to American and Delta who each scored a pitiful 5), and it leads the pack too in on-time performance and in customer complaints, where it earns the fewest. Yet its President Herb Kelleher credits the company’s success NOT to an overarching concern for customers, as is usually a CEO’s boast. Herb e would surely be the first to brag about Southwest’s happy customers and how they do indeed count, but his primary kudos instead target the company’s mad, passionate commitment to fully support and nurture its employees.

Though it might be a stretch to say the company’s philosophy is, literally, the “employee is always right, ” one could argue that the Southwest culture has hammered this axiom into place. Some Southwest executives have even been heard to say out loud, “Our employees come first and customers second. ”

“We try to allow our people to be themselves and not have to surrender their personality when they arrive at Southwest, ” Kelleher once explained to the media. “We deal with them as individuals. ” One industry analyst explains, “Employees at Southwest are selected primarily for attitude, while most companies select primarily for skills. (Like employee-friendly Wal-Mart) they have a particular view for people who will fit into a team-oriented organization with its family feel and a certain degree of fun built in. ”

It’s an appealing point of view. Think for a moment about your own responses to those you encounter throughout your management day: When you really think about it, where do the best ideas come from, your customers or your employees? Perhaps your firm conducts ongoing market research surveys and focus groups, as many do, but is the same spotlight and intensity ever pointed in the direction of workers? When it is, you’ll be on the Southwest track, and probably doing well. If it’s not, you may be missing out on a big one.

Ken Lizotte CMC is Chief Imaginative Officer (CIO) of emerson consulting group inc. (Concord, MA), which transforms consultants, law firms, executives and companies into “thoughtleaders. ” This article is an excerpt from his newest book “Beyond Reason: Questioning Assumptions of Everyday Life".

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