From Now On, The Customer Comes Second

As Taylor Swift so eloquently put it, we need to calm down.

The other day I got an impassioned email from one of my colleagues about a new trend in customer behavior. While I can’t say I was shocked by what she has endured as a frontline essential worker over the last 20 months, I can say I was disappointed.

Listen, I’m all for customers telling us what they need. Even the ones who have very particular preferences. What I’m not for, is abusive behavior.

Sure, there has always been a small number of knuckleheads who think frontline workers exist to be their punching bags. But that number seems to be growing exponentially. To defend themselves, managers are starting to ban people from their businesses.

And nobody signed up for that. Not the banner nor the banished. So here it is.

I think it’s time to ditch the adage, "the customer is always right."

Walking away from our blind adoration of people with wallets may seem counterintuitive in today’s highly competitive global marketplace. But hear me out. 

Let’s start by admitting that the “the customer is always right” adage only worked when both sides agreed to behave courteously and decently. That ship? Oh, it has sailed. 

And right behind the SS Common Courtesy is the SS Great Resignation. No longer willing to be customers’ punching bags for any price, our essential workers are walking away from businesses to the extent that many are having to close their doors.

Which just makes customers even more upset. So here’s what we CAN do.

If we want to attract and retain good people for our organizations – if we want happy, effective, engaged sales people on our front lines – we have to be better leaders. In fact, job number one must be equipping our customer-facing people with real skills. 

Instead of spreadsheets and “checking in” on Zoom calls, we need to spend our time and money teaching essential workers how to turn these nasty situations around. We need to give them the words, and skills they need to create outcomes that feel like a win for themselves as much as they do for the customer and the company. 

That means customers come second, after our frontline stars.

While many of us have been wringing our hands about plans for getting people back to the office, we’ve forgotten about the employees, in many of our organizations, who have been on the frontlines – working day in and day out – since this insanity began. And they’re burned out, burned up, and just plain exhausted.

With the most challenging talent market in recent memory, it’s vital that we take some steps right now to stem the tide of resignations. Supporting our frontline workers with real, useful, professional development is the best way to show polite, well-balanced customers that we’re the businesses for them.

Like many of you, I’m starting to travel again and I am absolutely appalled by the way my fellow flyers are treating those who are trying to serve them. How is it that we are now living in a world where restaurants have to put up signs asking diners to “be kind?”

We may not be able to stop unreasonably demanding diners and vicious clients, but we can choose to employ specific courageous leadership strategies that ensure the best and the brightest choose to stay with us.

4 Ways to Keep Your High Performers Performing on the Frontline

Show them you see them, hear them, care about them every day.

Yup. Just like a mom who believes her kid can do no wrong, we need to be starry-eyed when it comes to the precious workers we are lucky to have in our organizations. 

Our default should be to protect them from insults, assaults, and harm—even if it means losing a customer. To ensure this sort of support becomes part of our cultures, we need to embed this loyalty to each other in company training and policy.

Equip them with the skills to turn difficult customers into loyal fans.

Hiring someone and immediately putting them out on the front lines to “see how they do” hurts me to even think about. Making them sit in front of a “training video” is no better. It’s impersonal and ineffective.

While we can hire for attitude and potential, those things are useless without the tools necessary to do the work. As leaders, it’s our job to equip our workers with critical skills – like how to de-escalate a situation – taught in one-on-one training situations.

By going through every day in constant coaching and development mode, we lay the groundwork for happy team members who are loyal to our organizations.

Give them permission to put their own health and well-being first.

Good people stick with us through even the toughest times if they feel they are learning, growing, and part of a team. 

If our people can come away from difficult interactions feeling they grew from the experience and were supported by their leaders and team members, they’ll become our most valued assets.

As leaders, we need to be more attentive to our people than ever before. When a worker employs a skill we’ve taught them, we need to notice and reinforce their actions with recognition and personally relevant rewards. 

Moreover, when a worker comes through a tough episode, we need to have a policy in place that recognizes they might need a breather before diving back onto the front line.

Give frontline workers time away from the action.

Let’s just say you have a couple of superstars who are great at de-escalating fired up customers and leading them to positive outcomes. Give them a break. Nobody has enough cortisol to keep going forever. They might be really good at hiding their pain. 

So switch people out. Rotate your staff. Cross-train so that people can step away when they need to tap out. Step in yourself occasionally to ensure you fully understand the issues they’re faced with. 

Wonderful, loyal, repeat customers – the kind of customers who bring their friends to our shops and businesses – are the result of supported, well-trained, acknowledged, and admired front line workers.

We may not be able to stop the mean streak that’s out there in the world today. But by counting to ten before reacting, reminding ourselves to be kind, and supporting and training those who are in a position to take the brunt of the abuse, we may be able to start a new trend.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

Signature of Cindy Solomon, Courageous Leadership expert and keynote speaker

Cindy Solomon is CEO of the Courageous Leadership Institute, a thriving leadership and customer experience training organization with access to up-to-the-minute insights on how today’s most innovative corporations are defining the future of leadership. Learn more at www.CourageousLeadershipInstitute.com.

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