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.

33 responses to “The Customer-Employee Challenge”

  1. Ellis Baxter says:

    It is impossible to find balance if you do not listen. Most big companies do not really want to have real input. Focus on the customer, is the trick to a successful business. I learned from, of all people, Gov. George Wallace that if you promise something then do that: Wallace promised to 'stand in the school house door' he did and owned the office for the rest of his life. But, if you think in business it can get you into trouble try a congressman. …

  2. Robert, what a great article. In addition to the reasons you give, I think many business owners are averse to receiving this type of feedback because it's just too painful: too painful to admit they may have hired the wrong person, too painful to take time to make the necessary corrections, or too painful to take extreme ownership of the problem and fix it along with any other underlying problems. As usual, your advice is spot-on. Thank you for continuing to publish great information like this.

  3. DICK BARRY says:


  4. Richard Van Der says:

    If I had a business, I would require my employees to read certain essential books such as THINK AND GROW RICH by Napoleon Hill. If I remember right, in that book he discusses Self-Analysis. Everyone needs to do that. So many of us own repressed material, hard life experience, that colors our daily lives… often negatively. "Know thyself," said Sophocles. Businesses that employ neurotics cheat themselves. But then, come to think of it, if the boss/owner is highly afflicted him/herself as well, s'he might not know how to run a business effectively. .

  5. Allen says:


  6. 'Give unconditional + to your customers' should be the purpose of your business, any business for that matter. I argue this out in my book ' Success through super systems', where I call customer as Super systems no.1!

  7. Grateful Goat says:

    The RR Poster-Blog Challenge. If anyone has a customer service challenge it is YOU. There is nothing more silly than listening to someone give advice that he himself doesn't follow. You treat any contentious poster with little patience and no tolerance. It's one of your own universal laws – remember!

    I suggest you try again. This time with what you really think.

    Remember, you the CEO, would have dropped you, the complainer account, for writing the letter…

    Name: Grateful Goat

  8. Michael Ponzani says:

    Napoleon Hill spoke often about this.

  9. J Manley says:

    RR, I have had the same experience you describe in this article. I no longer try to be helpful to the owner of the "offending" business.The last straw was the time a business owner called to ream me for having the gall to write such an unpleasant, unsolicited opinion of a member of his team. A brief phone call to this owner, telling him that he and his firm, brought a quick end to a long business relationship. Henceforth, I no longer provide advance notice of my dissatisfaction. I just find someone else to provide a needed. Just last week, I "fired" a longtime health care provider, whose gatekeeper informed me that I had to wait 90 days for an appointment. A single phone call to another provider yielded a same day appointment.

  10. theczech says:

    One of the things world class businesses do is to treat their employees AND their customers very well. To these companies there is little distinction between employees and customers. May I suggest that the naivete to which you refer with these examples are mere symptoms of a disease on the part of the employer. Their handling of your critique is evidence of their inability to manage and coach employees. Ultimately some employees need to be dismissed. As you've proven, most customers can be salvaged, though a very few cannot be.

  11. H. Legre says:

    Many large companies are hamstrung by affirmative action requirements which mandate hiring by skin color rather than quality. The same rules make it difficult to fire a bad employee of favored skin color. Trashing affirmative action and other racist rules would help everyone.

  12. Paul Herring says:

    Good article, Robert. It's true what you say here and I too have been on the receiving end of some unpleasant feedback when what I said in confidence has been beached. There doesn't seem to be any future or hope for people like those you spoke of here.

    Yes, I too have been guilty of thinking that those I rely on to deal with my clients will do so as kindly as I like to think I have. They don't usually. Thankfully, they don't bag these clients, they simply don't do anything to them or for them.

    Now it seems logical to me that all employees be placed on an incentive system. If they do the job well they get the inventive offered . If not, in time they'll get "the sack" – fired as you say in the US.

  13. Paul Herring says:

    ps: I meant "breached", not "beached"!

  14. larajf says:

    Amen. But I do still give feedback, LOL

  15. Reality Seeker says:

    "….she [the public relations agent] demonstrated an uncanny knack for coming up with four-letter words that I didn’t even know existed."

    Yes. This is public relations circa 2016. And it's only going to get worse. The labor pool is as bad as the gene pool, very…. So nothing, and I mean nothing surprises me. And Mr. Ringer's article is just one example why "America won't be made great again".. ever. For one thing, socio-political-economic cycles don't reciprocate, i.e., move backward and forward in a straight line. Empires rise, then fall, but not in a straight line. Of course, the American Empire may yet reach its zenith. But living in an empire means living with people who push balls of shit uphill until the balls become so big that they can't be pushed up any farther. Then, the big, big balls of shit roll back down crushing everybody in the path… The so called "service economy" is one very big ball of shit that one day is going to roll, roLL, rOLL, ROLL……. DOWNHILL. The Federal Reserve is pushing massive balls of credit uphill. And when they finally roll backwards, nothing is going to stop them.

    Of course, poor customer service and a bad attitude is nothing new. Henry David Thoreau wrote about individuals with " a maggot in their head". Nowadays, the maggots have gotten bigger.

    "I sometimes despair of getting anything quite simple and honest done in this world by the help of men. They would have to be passed through a powerful press first, to squeeze their old notions out of them, so that they would not soon get upon their legs again; and then there would be some one in the company with a maggot in his head, hatched from an egg deposited there nobody knows when, for not even fire kills these things, and you would have lost your labor."

    • Reality Seeker says:

      Lastly, Mr. Ringer pointed out how "Ms. Snit" was full of "negligence, laziness, incompetence, and a huge chip on her shoulder".

      Yes. This is a socio-political-economic trend which is going to worsen until it rolls back down hill. As a public service, I'm going to post more of the radical left's tactics. This decades old strategy has killed off capitalism. And when capitalism died, so did genuine customer service. You can't have one without the other. Once a socialist state is established, good customer service wastes away like a rotting corpse.

      How To Create A Socialist State
      by Saul Alinsky

      1) Healthcare — Control healthcare and you control the people

      2) Poverty — Increase the Poverty level as high as possible, poor people are easier to control and will not fight back if you are providing everything for them to live.

      3) Debt — Increase the debt to an unsustainable level. That way you are able to increase taxes, and this will produce more poverty.

      4) Gun Control — Remove the ability to defend themselves from the Government. That way you are able to create a police state.

      5) Welfare — Take control of every aspect of their lives (Food, Housing, and Income).

      6) Education — Take control of what people read and listen to — take control of what children learn in school.

      7) Religion — Remove the belief in the God from the Government and schools.

      8) Class Warfare — Divide the people into the wealthy and the poor. This will cause more discontent and it will be easier to take (Tax) the wealthy with the support of the poor.

  16. Guido says:

    Tortoise, there you go again….you gave us another retread column that you pretend is new. We read the same words from you on June 4, 2013.

    At least television shows warn us when a program is a repeat.

    • Paul Herring says:

      You don't need to read it, Guido. I, for one, didn't know about the one you're referring to. Besides, you aren't getting charged for Robert's blog, so why complain? Why not simply unsubscribe?

    • Robert Ringer RJR says:

      Sorry you feel that way. I will have you removed from our free mailing list. Thanks for your past interest.

      • Guido says:

        Do we read a hypocritical Tortoise?!

        Your post says, "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." Yet when I merely noted that your current post was a retread one from mid-2013, you pledged to remove me from your "free mailing list." Did I miss your gratefulness, or have your standards changed?

        The old Tortoise would have wondered how a reader would have known the exact 2013 date that the identical post was published. He then would have surmised that someone who knew that information gave close attention to detail for a good reason. The old Tortoise would have then concluded that the reader might be a customer that has paid for several of his (and for Bob Bly's) books and information products.

        Alas, as my mother used to tell me, "the older you get, the stupider you get."

  17. Serge says:

    I've complained to an employer about an employee only to have the employer team up with the employee on me on how I was in the wrong. Anyways long story short, If you underestimate me I will teach you a lesson In the form of reviews to everybody I encounter when given the opportunity and then some.

  18. Rock Roach says:

    Great article. I am always surprised (I guess not really) how many employees get employee of the month awards
    by (1) working at a job that most people do not want-so the company makes them employee of the month very shortly after their hire date to keep them at that position within the company or (2) They like to reward people who bring them food or do special favors etc for management. Very rarely will an employee be rewarded for customer
    service simply because management doesn't pay attention to it.In fact the manager himself or herself will think
    if business is good-they are the reason of the good customer service because of their so-called "positon" as managers.

    • Jose Jackson says:

      I hear ya, some managers are good, others makes ya wonder who did they know or blow to get that position.

  19. NoDrinkNoDrugNoSmoke says:

    Great article! Here are a few jokes you might like:

    Two pretzels are walking down a city street. One is a salted.

    Three olives are on a table and one rolls off. The other two yell "Are you okay?" He yells back " Ol' live "

    I'd like to thank my legs for supporting me, my arms for being by my side,
    and my fingers…I can always count on them

  20. Jim Hallett says:

    Customer service . .. or the LACK of it, really . .. is an ongoing hot button, and no more so than at the holiday time. I fill out numerous surveys from places such as Kroger, Dunkin' Donut, Amazon et al., but generally get no real response, other than a generic "Thank you for sharing as our customers' opinions are VERY important to us" blather. Most times, even when a personal response is asked for, none is given, or other times just a defense of company policy. NO CUSTOMER EVER cares about a company's policy!! They care about being served and getting value for their $. Then, when these businesses lose biz or have to shutter their place, they wonder what could have gone wrong. The big companies just assume the gravy train will continue forever, and of course, they too are mistaken. Good article, Robert, but I am afraid we are all doomed to receive mostly BAD or mediocre service, and I am not disinclined to fill out surveys, etc. (unless they give me something – NOT a lottery drawing for a "potential" gift), since they go to mid-level employees who, as you say, filter out the responses to the real decision-makers, or worse encourage those to then confront you with the glories of their company policy, proving they are right and the customer is wrong.

  21. Jim Hallett says:

    *now disinclined, it should read.

  22. anna says:

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  23. Jose Jackson says:

    It is a wonder about these surveys myself. One time in band camp got a survey back not from my boss but his boss. Never been introduced to it and was baffled as to why I was getting a survey result back like that. I guess I should not look at a gift horse in the mouth, but it seemed rather weird for sure. I threw it away, awards and such are meaningless. Getting recognized for doing what you are supposed to is retarded.

  24. A shame from Ohiho says:

    I am in charge of a place and I create fake surveys to play head games with employees. If I feel I need to motivate employees I will give out a bad survey and for the folks I like I create plenty of good surveys. Hope no one ever noticed what a phony and fraud I am. If they did they might come up with some sarcastic put downs of me and but of course, since I an so pig headed, I may even play more games. I know, I am such a loser crazy mess. Such an embarrassment, probably my family feels the same way if they found out I am such a wreck wretch of a human being. But we hire stupid people, they would never figure it out. Their phalanges would never point to me.

  25. I never see any detailed article on the Customer and Employee challenge ever. Thank you for adding the detailed article here.

  26. pauline cameron says:

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