Customers or Employees: Which Comes First?

Today’s blog is from Karin Hurt, one of our 2013 ICSA Annual Conference Keynote Speakers.  Karin’s blog, “Let’s Grow Leaders” provides daily thought provoking content on leadership.  In this blog, Karin asks the question of which comes first, the customers or employees?  Read her thoughts, and then Join the Conversation by adding your thoughts!

Customers or Employees: Which Comes First?

Chicken Nuggets or  Egg McMuffins?  Customers or employees?  Which comes first?  Does it matter?

I was intrigued by an Wall Street Journal articlerevealing McDonald’s efforts to fix customer service.  Much conversation about customers.  Little about employees.  I felt compelled to respond, in an article I published titled, Dear McDonald’s It’s Not About the Burgers (or even the yogurt).

A Letter to McDonald’s

Dear McDonald’s,

I know you’re frustrated that your internal presentation on fixing customer service was leaked to the press. That stinks. You can recover. At least we know you are trying to fix it. We’d all like a bit more happy with our meals.

5 suggestions (read more on by clicking here)

I tweeted the article to McDonald’s and was impressed with their response.

@letsgrowleaders Thanks. Input from our customers is a gift. We’re trying to improve and grow every day. ^JH

That’s promising.

Customers or Employees?

And so I’ve been asking this question in my circles.

“Employees come first! Companies need a GREAT product to attract and maintain customers, so what better product than great employees!!!”

“Customers come first.  Always.  Forever.  Developing a team and investing in employees is all part of that “selfless service” spirit.”

“Happy people create happy people, experiences, and outcomes.”

“Customers are first because if we take care of them, we will see the benefits, and in turn create happy employees”

“As an employee I should be focused on our customers.  As a supervisor, my focus in on the employee.  My outward focus should trickle down the line.”

“First start with a dynamic, well-trained, well compensated empowered and respected work force.”

“If we all focused on meeting and exceeding each other’s needs as people first, the same will pass on to our customers.”

“People first” is all that matters.”

“View our employees as customers.”

I choose employees.  Engaged, confident happy employees create magical customer experiences.  Ignore the employees, your customers will leave.

What advice would you give McDonald’s (or other companies facing similar challenges?

What comes first, customers or employees?



  1. Although both are extremely important, if you don’t have satisfied employees you won’t have satisfied customers. If employees are happy and have and show their passion for the product or service being offered, it will be shown in how the interact with customers. A prime example is Zappos and the empowerment employees have to do the right thing for customers.

  2. I fully agree with what Vince said. Treating employees the right way will create the very culture that will foster excellent customer care and experiences.

    I’ve worked in companies that literally celebrated their employees and others that treated you more like an asset, a paycheck if you will. It was far easier for me to create great customer interactions at the former. I read a book once titled, “The Customer Comes Second.” Makes sense!

  3. I would agree that employees come first as well. Working in distribution, we need great sales teams to ensure the sale is a positive experience for the customer and great distribution teams to make sure the customer gets both the service and products that they expect. Additionally, a great Customer Service team needs to be there for the customer if something goes wrong. Great service is delivered by happy employees, and great service in turn creates happy customers.

  4. Great article, Karin! I agree with Vince & Bill. To add to their comments, a positive employee culture is so critical to a company’s success. Identifying the right people who fit your company’s culture is key. This begins during recruiting, where you need to first target the right folks and then hire them…see it as your gateway to success.

  5. Several years ago, I worked with FedEx and they presented their “inverted pyramid” to me. At the broadest and most foundational level, they placed their employees, at the next largest level were their customers, and finally the group that had the smallest presence were the stockholders. The message was clear – take care of your employees, then your customers, and the dollars follow. While at AT&T, our research indicated that results from our employee satisfaction survey was a leading indicator. Six months after our employee survey was conducted, those results would be reflected in our customer satisfaction scores and then six months after that, they would manifest themselves in our financials. The data does not lie! The CEO of ebay has just charged us with a similar approach so we’re excited. Unfortunately, what I’ve seen in practice is that many execs who espouse these principles quickly forget them when the financial margins begin to shrink..

    • Thanks for sharing Lark! I know that Sears had a very similar experience and was able to predict customer satisfaction based on employee satisfaction indices from six months earlier.

      Your final point about CEO’s that abandon these principles in the face of financial pressures indicates how important it is to monetize the value of customer satisfaction and loyalty and to link that directly to employee satisfaction. CEO’s HAVE to be concerned about the bottom line. So showing them the DIRECT financial impact of employee satisfaction is the best way to grab their attention and keep it!

  6. Thanks for the sensible criutqie. Me & my neighbor were just preparing to do a little research on this. We grabbed a book from our area library but I think I learned better from this post. I’m very glad to see such fantastic information being shared freely out there..

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