Which Should Come First?


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Did you hear the one about the employee who was about to be recognized for his 20th year of service, only for his supervisors to find that he hadn’t shown up for work in the last 6 years? If only this was the set-up for a joke and not reality!

Clearly that man’s employer should have created a culture that put “employees first,” right? Then again, I’m reminded of the Gallup research captured in the book Human Sigma: Managing the Employee-Customer Encounter which suggests that while there is a high correlation between employee engagement and customer engagement that relationship IS NOT CAUSAL. This means that there are situations where employees are highly engaged and customers are not (think of a workplace where employees feel like they are on a cruise but they forget to invite the customers along for the fun journey).

All of this begs the question which should come first from the perspective of strategic priorities – the employee experience or the customer experience? The correct answer for all of these “chicken vs. egg” scenarios is…BOTH!

We can call those who work with us “employees, associates, team members” or any other host of terms just like we can label customers with words like “consumers, users, patients, guests, or clients.” In the end, one term captures all of these groups – they are PEOPLE!

Whether those people interact with our brand from the “inside out” or the “outside in,” we should obsess about driving the best human experience possible. As such, I side-step the “employee” vs. “customer” debate by championing “people obsessed” priorities.

Here’s a short-list of what “People Obsessed” leaders do. They:

  • Define how they want PEOPLE to feel when engaged with their brand.
  • Select PEOPLE who can deliver the branded and emotional connection.
  • Inspire PEOPLE to achieve the transformational “purpose” of the brand.
  • Train PEOPLE to deliver “operational excellence” AND “emotional connection”.
  • Measure the engagement of all PEOPLE served (employees, customers, business partners, etc.).
  • Share stories of service excellence and of the PEOPLE who are “purposeful”.
  • Recognize and celebrate PEOPLE who demonstrate “otherness” (and they do that regularly – not just at 20 year annivesaries of employment).

One of the great “Yogiisms” of the late, great Yogi Berra was…when “you come to a fork in the road…take it.” Similiarly for me, when it comes to picking which people matter most – resist the urge to choose!

Listen, respect, inspire, and grow people both inside and outside of your organization and those same people will listen, respect, inspire and help your business grow as well!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Joseph Michelli, Ph.D.
Joseph Michelli, Ph.D., an organizational consultant and the chief experience officer of The Michelli Experience, authored The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and the best-selling The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary.


  1. Absolutely agree. Enterprise customer-centricity is most effectively achieved when comprehensive stakeholder experience optimization becomes a priority.

    We see the customer experience as being intimately connected to the employee experience (having little to do with employee engagement, per se, because it is so variably defined). Don’t know about employee experience as being a precursor to customer experience as some believe, but it is certainly parallel at minimum.

    Based on our perspectives and client experience, we’ve written extensively about it – https://beyondphilosophy.com/service-process-vs-service-experience-solving-customers-problem-vs-owning-customers-issue/ and https://beyondphilosophy.com/virgin-shows-links-between-employee-experience-and-customer-experience/ – and have created and tested our unique, differentiated (from antecedent thinking about employee satisfaction and engagement), and highly actionable research protocol.

    Our research and consulting (https://beyondphilosophy.com/services/employee-engagement-consulting/) focuses on the emotional drivers employees and their experiences as leveraged for customer experience optimization.

    Humanity and leadership throughout the enterprise are essential. Here is one of my favorite quotes, from Hal Rosenbluth, former CEO of Rosenbluth International (now part of American Express Travel Services):

    “We’re talking about a change that puts the people in organizations above everything else. They are cared for, valued, empowered, and motivated to care for their clients. When a company puts its people first, the results are spectacular. Their people are inspired to provide a level of service that truly comes from the heart. It can’t be faked. Companies are only fooling themselves when they believe that ‘The Customer Comes First.’ People do not inherently put the customer first, and they certainly don’t do it because their employer expects it. We’re not saying choose your people over your customers. We’re saying focus on your people because of your customers. That way, everybody wins.”

  2. During the initial business startup phase, service may not be as important as the location, trendy furnishings and celebrity appearances. “Newness ” builds upon itself with a steady stream of customers mainly focused on hitting the next hotest spot.

    Soon, the stars have all left, the furnishings may have become somewhat worn and the staff a little long-in-the-tooth.

    After a business passes their startup phase what is left is the ability to continue creating memories for the customers who enter their doors.

    So I guess my answer is that initially, the customers come first, but for long term growth and stability, the employees come first. They are the foundation of any business.

  3. Many strategic possibilities in business are presented as either/or choices. I do not understand why this happens. The dilemma you described about employee experience versus customer experience compares to asking which military branch is most important to national security – army, air force, or navy. Most people would find it a fool’s errand to ponder this question and to provide an answer in singular terms.

    In your assessment on strategic priorities, I agree it’s both – and more. Why stop there when the needed outcome is delivering value to customers, and having value returned to the organization? What about a code of conduct, delivery infrastructure, and a financial strategy. You can have all the ‘customer engagement’ or ’employee engagement’ in the world, and it won’t amount to squat if there’s no enterprise to support the delivery of a product.

    I’m curious about your choice to use obsessed – I see nothing positive in it because the definition carries such a dysfunctional connotation: to “preoccupy or fill the mind of (someone) continually, intrusively, and to a troubling extent.” Are employees and customers well-served if management considers itself ‘obsessed’ and creates a culture that embodies the spirit of the word? I don’t see anyone thriving under that situation.

  4. Thank you Michael Lowenstein, the research you at Beyond Philosophy does reinforce this “dual approach”. Thanks for your thought leadership and academic rigor.

  5. Andrew Rudin, my work with Mercedes-Benz USA is rubbing off on me. Their leaders talk about “customer obsession” and “violent execution” of strategy. I think the point is to remove the psychological definition of these terms (which pathologizes them) and to instead evoke a level of intensity. Mercedes-Benz has always been proud to be “product obsessed,” in their parlance “having product quality and safety constantly in mind.” Leaders wanted that same attention to detail and thoughtfulness reflected in the customer experience.

  6. Howard, what a thoughtful distinction (advancing both but not necessarily being able to maximize both). That makes sense and it makes me think about this dilemma at a different level. I will let that distinction simmer. Thank you for “advancing” the dialogue!

  7. Joseph – thanks for taking the time to clarify this. I think the semantic confusion perpetuated at Mercedes Benz underscores my point. If a reader is not among the cognoscenti aware of the inside meaning of “violent execution,” and “customer obsession,” how should he or she interpret these terms, other than to defer to the dictionary definition?

    I think many words and phrases get coined as a way for advertisers and marketers to pitch their brands: “We’re ‘laser-focused’ on . . .” “Our marketing automation software will give you and your team an ‘unfair advantage’ for executing . . .” For me, there are widely-understood, better-fitting terms, defined in the dictionary, that do a swell job of conveying these ideas. Why not use them? And I already shared my thoughts about over-the-top ‘love’ . . .

  8. Andrew – Point well taken for sharing concepts across settings. I am guilty of liking emotionally evocative language used within a tribe. I see it as a banner that cuts through clutter and is unique to the community for which it is intended. Be it words like “venti” or “beloved brand” or “customer obsession.” Despite my personal vulnerability for such colorful language – there is much to be said for readily understood languages… better yet “less readily misunderstood” wording. Thank you again for your thought leadership.


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