Do Your Employees Know Who They Really Work for?

How to ensure your employees’ focus is on your customers’ comfort, not just their own.

If you asked your employees who they work for, most would give the name of your company or organization. Is that the right answer? Some would say the right answer is “our customers.”

I was at a well-known coffee chain’s outpost at LaGuardia Airport last week. As I stood at the counter putting away my change, an employee with a rag stood next to me waiting, giving signals from her body language, in its closeness and fixedness, that I was in her space. After a minute, she couldn’t stand it anymore, and said “Excuse me,” to get me out of the way.

“I’m the customer. I’m taking my time,” I said. The store was empty except for one other customer. She didn’t have to clean the spot where I was standing at that particular moment. As I walked away, I grumbled to myself, “You’re working for me.” I had been made to feel like an impediment to her work rather than the heart of her work. As the customer, Iwas her work.

Every time I asked a question, whether it was about straws, napkins, or anything else, one of her colleagues called me “Honey.” Not Ma’am, Not Madame, not Miss or Ms., but “Honey,” as in “Yes, Honey, right there,” or “No, Honey.” It felt a bit hostile rather than an endearment—as though the repetitive “Honey” was her way of controlling her temper. Should an employee ever call your customers “Honey”? I don’t think so, unless the customer happens to be a family member or dear friend. I was neither to that coffee store employee.

Overlaying those unpleasant interactions was blaring music that, I’m guessing, the majority of the store’s customers would not like. It wasn’t neutral-sounding background music like you typically hear in a store, but music that would be better suited to a club. Does the company know its employees are turning on music that many customers will find irritating, and playing it at a level that may drive some to avoid stopping there long?

All of these observations fall under the umbrella of employees who are more concerned with their own comfort than with that of their customer. Keeping your employees satisfied and comfortable is important. Unhappy employees mean unhappy customers. However, that satisfaction and comfort can’t come at the expense of the customer.

I found an article in the publication, CSM, by Bob Thompson that emphasizes the importance of taking a balanced approach to employee versus customer satisfaction. He writes that it requires a fine balance: “Imagine your right leg represents your customers, and your left leg represents your employees. Does it really matter if you step first with the right leg or the left? If you keep stepping with just one foot, you’ll spin around in a circle. Alternate steps and you’re more likely to make a successful journey, because you’ll be delivering value to both customers and employees.”

In the case of the coffee store, training on cleaning protocols could note the importance of not breaching customer space. That if you have to choose between cleaning and the space a customer needs to be comfortable and unrushed, then the customer’s need comes first. When addressing customers, a company can release its employees from having to call customers “Ma’am,” “Sir,” etc., but also can note the importance of not using inappropriate endearments. A good rule of thumb is to imagine how you would address a CEO or renowned person you admire. Would you call that person “Honey”? Probably not. There’s no way of knowing who people you never met are. That petite, soft-spoken woman you called “Honey” five times in three minutes might be the head of a corporation.

To address the ambiance issue, ask employees to think about the full range of people they know—not just their friends, but their family and acquaintances. If the music they’re playing wouldn’t appeal to any of those people, they probably should choose something else, or turn it off altogether. A company could consider sending stores a play list, or a few different play lists, to load onto the in-store radio. The music genres would differ, but all would be suitable for having on in the background without causing a noisome distraction.

If a company owns a chain of stores, a good exercise is to have new employees from one store visit another store, where they don’t know anyone, to explore what it’s like to be a customer. After this exercise, ask the employee to give a report of what the store’s employees did well and what could use improvement. The feedback can be used to improve the other store’s employees while serving as a teachable moment for the new employee—full of lessons to take back to her own store. When the shoe’s on the other foot, it becomes clear who an employee works for, and what it takes to keep that person happy.

How do you ensure your employees’ focus is on your customers’ comfort, not just their own?