TADS Insights

Employees First - Customers Second

1 September 2014


For much of my business career I have been operating on a false assumption.  That assumption is that the customer is more important than anything else and we should design and run organisations to be customer-orientated and even customer-driven.

When I look back on it now, it seems the seeds of this belief were sown when I did my undergraduate business degree almost 30 years ago.  I can still hear the old lines, like mantras, playing in my head.  Everything begins and ends with the customer.  We exist to satisfy customer needs and even, the customer is King.  You too may have had the same messaging.  

But, are these ideas true?

Recently I have updated my thinking and concluded that employees are far more important than customers.  We should design and operate organisations with the sole aim of creating an environment where people can give of their very best and, in that way, they will respond in kind, which will ultimately result in exceptional customer experiences.

This switch in thinking has come from asking a simple question: what’s the purpose of an organisation?  The answer is to offer customers value for which they are willing to pay.  The arena where this negotiation happens can be called the “value zone” – the cauldron where customers and organisational representatives play this game of offering and bidding to end up with an arrangement where both parties can agree and a deal can be done.

From an organisational perspective, the key player in making things happen within the value zone is the employee.  They are the ones who are the interface between the business and the customer, they are the eyes and ears, trend-spotters, and designers of solutions for customer problems not yet anticipated.  They are the ones who deliver the products and services day-in, day-out.

One company that’s taking this approach is HCL Technologies, a global IT services company of 90,000 employees.  HCL have created a culture where the employee is at the very centre of everything they do.  Employees effectively become the “bosses”, and managers, through an inverted pyramid model report to the employees of the business on such issues as performance, profitability and potential opportunities.  It’s a way of working that calls for high transparency.  

The results are seriously impressive.  In the first 5 years of the “Employees First” programme HCL revenues and market capitalisation have grown by a factor of 6 and the company has been named the Best Employer in Asia.

One of the keys to becoming an “Employee First” organisation is to acknowledge that your people have lives outside of their work.  Your people, especially if they are Gen Y, are looking for a place where they can grow in all dimensions of their lives.  They want to contribute and they want to know that what they do matters.  They want to see a strong connection between what they do every day and some kind of meaning for their lives.

If you work hard on helping your employees be the best they can be, it makes sense that they will play their part well.  Your people will become authentic representatives of your organisation and, amazingly your customers will thank you for it.

-- David Keane