The Customer-Employee Challenge

Posted on December 20, 2016 by Robert Ringer


For many years, I felt a moral obligation to inform business owners whenever I thought they had a personnel or customer-service problem they may not recognize. I say moral obligation, because I, for one, have always been grateful when a customer — or anyone, for that matter — took the time to call to my attention any aspect of my business which they felt was not up to par.

I use the past tense here because I rarely volunteer my observations anymore. Even though the urge to be of help to a fellow entrepreneur or business owner still resides within me, I long ago came to the conclusion that most business owners are neither interested in, nor serious about, receiving such feedback.

A few years ago, I was doing business with a public relations firm that assigned a seemingly intelligent young lady (“Ms. Snit”) to my account. Subsequent events made it clear that she had it all — negligence, laziness, incompetence, and a huge chip on her shoulder. Her purported job was public relations, but her entitlement mentality caused her to focus on her technical “duties” rather than on pleasing her company’s customers.

After enduring one abysmal experience after another with her, I finally decided to go to the trouble of writing a letter to the CEO of the company, a letter in which I detailed Ms. Snit’s myriad deficiencies and belligerent attitude. I subsequently spoke to him on the phone and emphasized that I would prefer he handle the matter in a general sort of way in order to avoid a backlash. I specifically requested that he leave my name out of his discussion with her, given that I have an aversion to axe murders.

I suggested that he simply point out some areas of weakness where he felt Ms. Snit needed some improvement. He assured me that he wouldn’t even mention my name and that he would handle the matter “gingerly.” I guess we had differing definitions of the word gingerly, because he not only told her straight out what I had said about her, he actually showed her my letter!

A short time later, I called Ms. Snit to inquire about an unrelated matter, whereupon she went into a tirade about how I had “defamed” her. In rare form, she demonstrated an uncanny knack for coming up with four-letter words that I didn’t even know existed.

Needless to say, from that point on she went out of her way to make things difficult for me. Worse, having been allowed to get away with her outrageous behavior, it was a green light for her to continue to treat her company’s most valued assets — its customers — with glaring contempt.

So much for Ms. Snit.

About a year later, I hired an audio/video company to do some work for me, and dealt primarily with the vice president of new business development. Notwithstanding his impressive title, he never once delivered work to me on time. Worse, he was unresponsive to an extreme.

I finally got so fed up with the bad service I was getting that I felt compelled to let the owner know about it. Since he had been the one to personally solicit my business, I assumed he would be concerned about the lack of follow-through on the part of one of his top people. Here again I asked him to please be sure to handle the problem gingerly since we were only about half way through my project and I didn’t want any problems.

Once again, however, there apparently was a wide disparity between our definitions of “gingerly.” Wham! Immediately after the owner of the company talked to him, the vice president of new business development called to let me know, in no uncertain terms, that he didn’t appreciate my “going behind his back” to complain to his boss.

I didn’t bother to remind him that on numerous occasions I had expressed my dissatisfaction directly to him, but it seemed not to have had any effect. Needless to say, working through the remainder of the project with him was a very uncomfortable experience for me.

Advice: If you’re a business owner, when a customer does you a favor by pointing out that one of your employees is not doing his job properly, don’t make the mistake of creating an adversarial relationship between your employee and your customer. Be grateful to the customer, thank him for taking the time and trouble to tell you about his dissatisfaction, then approach the employee gingerly.

Meaning, tactfully point out the area or areas where you feel he needs improvement, but leave the customer out of it. Why? For at least two reasons.

First, because you can count on the employee’s having his own version of the story, and that version is almost certain to cast him as a victim. Which means you then have to make a decision as to whom to believe.

Second, if you intend to have an ongoing relationship with the customer, the offending employee is likely to act in ways that will drive him away from you by exacting retribution for his “tattling” on him.

I believe that one of the reasons so many employers make this mistake is that they tend to be naive. By and large, anyone ambitious enough to go into business for himself is usually conscientious, competent, reliable, hardworking, and customer-oriented. Where the naiveté comes into play is that such business owners also have a tendency to assume, at least subconsciously, that their employees possess the same traits.

And, fortunately, many employees do — at least the ones who are focused on getting ahead in life. However, the employees who treat customers disrespectfully are most likely to be the same ones who excel at kissing up to their bosses.

How do some employees manage to get away with this kind of charade throughout their careers? Sadly, I believe the egos of many business owners simply can’t resist the gushy verbiage of the professional sycophants on their payroll. It makes them feel secure to know they are surrounded by a cadre of pit bulls who make great theater of protecting their bosses.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that many employers are literally addicted to the fabricated adulation of their employees. The unspoken understanding is that in exchange for treating the boss as if he were the Pope, they can count on him to stand up for the guys and gals on “his team” at all costs.

All of which sounds very noble, except for the reality that it’s simply not good business. An owner cannot serve his customers effectively if he is focused on not offending his employees.

I want to emphasize that making certain your employees are treating your customers with tender loving care does not prevent you from treating those same employees with respect. But your relationship with an employee should be based on how well he treats your most precious asset — your customers — rather than how well he treats you.

The corollary to this is that if you happen to be an employee, you should skip the sycophantism and focus your efforts on pleasing your company’s customers. You’ll get ahead much more quickly by having customers tell your boss what great service you gave them rather than by your continually telling the boss how great he is.

Finally, if you’re a work-alone entrepreneur, everything is in your lap, because you are both the employee and the employer. Without customers, you have nothing. Treat them like the valuable assets they are. The only rigid policy you should have is that the customer must be satisfied at all costs.

In fact, you should look at every customer complaint as an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with that customer. I’ve done this a thousand times in my career not only by apologizing and thanking the customer for letting me know about his dissatisfaction, but also by doing something special for him.

Almost without fail, it results in having a more loyal customer than having one who has never registered a complaint. In other words, you should view a customer’s complaint as an opportunity rather than a problem.

One last piece of advice that I feel is critical: Don’t ask customers to fill out evaluation forms unless you, personally, are prepared to read them. On at least two occasions that I can think of, I was about to fill out one of those “tell us how we’re doing” forms, because I thought the owner of the company would appreciate knowing that someone in his organization was not performing up to par.

The problem? In both cases, the form was to be returned to the very person I was having the problem with! As I said, many business owners are very naive.

If you own a business — or plan to own one some day — never make this mistake. If having your customers evaluate your products and services is really important to you, make sure all customer evaluation forms are sent directly to you. Otherwise, you’re tempting the employee who reads the forms to shred the ones that don’t please him — and then plot ways to get even with those who do the complaining.

Robert Ringer

Robert Ringer is an American icon whose unique insights into life have helped millions of readers worldwide. He is also the author of two New York Times #1 bestselling books, both of which have been listed by The New York Times among the 15 best-selling motivational books of all time.