The Customer is King

Why the Customer is Always King

Within the business community and in places of higher learning across this great country and all over the world, there is a debate about what is more important to a business: Is it the customer, with whom everything should start and end? Or is it the employee?

The two arguments are best understood by reflecting on a deceptively simple question: What make an organization survive—and then thrive—through the years? Is it an organization that’s customer-centric or one that’s employee-centric? Many organizations often start by being employee-centric. That’s understandable—and wise. An organization should always start with the team, assembling the right talent and right people in order to make the organization tick. There’s nothing wrong with that.

But the question at the heart of this chapter is not an open-ended one in which both sides can be right. If we were forced to choose, I would say that without a doubt the customer is more important. And in most cases, where you have to make a decision about choosing between customer and employee it might be wise to put the customer first. In most cases your business will be served best by living with the philosophy that customer is King.

I speak from personal experience. It is through the customer that we made so many beneficial changes to our business. We succeeded because we listened to the customer. The tabouleh that we serve was inspired by customer feedback. So was the rice, the kabob items, and the lavash (during the time we served it). Almost every good idea we’ve had originated from customer feedback.

None of that is to say that employees and managers can’t or don’t come up with great ideas. One of our former operations managers proposed the “falafel special,” a combo that comes with two pieces of falafel as a side—a terrific upsell for each customer that ordered a wrap. In the mid-1990s, a Starbucks employee came up with the idea for their now world-famous Frappuccinos. His name is Greg Rogers and he was an assistant manager at the Starbucks store on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. It’s interesting to note that Rogers’s idea was initially shot down by Howard Schultz, the founder and then-CEO of Starbucks. Schultz’s opposition was based on two reasons that are nothing short of laughable in hindsight: The first reason was that Starbucks had just brokered a deal with Coca-Cola to introduce a coffee-cola drink (the very idea was evidently a complete bust). And second, Schultz didn’t want blenders in Starbucks stores because he believed they went against the company’s coffee culture.

We’ve all heard the phrase about how the customer is always right. But is he—or she—always right? There are always exceptions to every rule, and in this case it must be said that if your customer is being rude to your employees, you should kick the customer out. There are situations in which your employees always need to be defended.

I myself once kicked out a customer from our Glendale store. Okay, I take that back: I didn’t kick her out—I asked her to leave because she was being extremely rude to my employees. And just to press home the point that such rudeness would not be tolerated, I refunded her money for two chickens she had bought—and then took back the chickens instead of letting her have them, as I think she was expecting. As a parting shot, I told her that if she didn’t like her food she should patronize the El Pollo Loco store down the street.

However, at the end of the day if we don’t have customers, we can’t pay our employees. That is why I believe that while the mission statement and values statement of an organization can contain great things about the associates of a business, the essential message should always be customer-centric. You can’t have it both ways.

Here’s what a few like-minded world-class thinkers have said about this issue:

There is only one valid definition of business purpose: to create a customer. (Peter Drucker, management guru).

There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else. (Sam Walton, founder of Walmart).

It is not the employer who pays the wages. Employers only handle the money. It is the customer who pays the wages. (Henry Ford)

There’s a remarkable story about Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, that shines the perfect light on how employees should be treated—even when they appear to have the best interests of the organization at heart.

As the story goes, Roosevelt worked as a rancher before he joined politics, and one day he was riding over the range with one of his cowpunchers who lassoed a two-year-old steer that had never been branded. Roosevelt and his cowhand lit a fire and began heating their branding irons.

As it happened, the part of the range where they were was claimed by one of Roosevelt’s neighbors, a rancher by the name of Gregory Lang. Because the steer was found on Lang’s land, it belonged to him, according to the rule among cattlemen.

As the cowhand applied the brand to the maverick, Roosevelt stopped him. “Wait,” the would-be president said. “It should be Lang’s brand—a thistle.”

The cowboy was taken aback. “That’s alright, boss,” he countered, continuing to brand the steer. “But you’re putting on my brand,” Roosevelt said. “That’s right,” said the cowboy. “I always put on the boss’s brand.”

“Drop that iron,” Roosevelt said. “And get back to the ranch and get out.”

The cowboy protested, but Roosevelt told him that he had no place for such people on his ranch. His final words to the employee were: “A man who will steal for me will steal from me.”

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