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Your people are also your customers

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in Leaders & Managers,Management Training

by Mike Clark-Madison

One of my clients tipped me off to a horror story out of Australia that has gotten attention on the Internet, with the subject line "the customer is not always right." In brief: A convenience store clerk sells a teenager a bottle of malt vinegar. Being as clever as teenagers often are, he goes home and drinks it, making himself quite ill.

His mother then storms into the store demanding the clerk be punished. The baffled clerk points out he did nothing wrong. She complains to management, insisting the clerk told her son it was OK to drink vinegar. When the surveillance camera footage shows otherwise, she insists the clerk doctored the video. However, rather than tell this woman to go away, the clerk's managers insist he apologize for his "wrongdoing" anyway. The clerk refuses and is fired. He lawyers up, and after much back-and-forth, it's the managers who end up getting fired. The clerk is reinstated with a raise for his trouble.

Yes, the customer is not always right. But I thought about this story a different way--it depends who your "customers" are. For the managers in this episode, the front-line employees like this clerk, on whom the success of the enterprise depends, are also "customers" of their supervisory services. It may have seemed easiest to just ask the clerk to tell the woman what she wanted to hear. But by failing to treat the clerk with even as much respect as he had treated this patently unreasonable customer, the managers totally fell down on providing the service they're paid to offer. Sometimes, treating your employees right--that is, serving your internal customers--means not giving your external customers absolutely everything they want.

Obviously, if the managers wanted to express their sympathy and regret for the unfortunate situation of this woman's dim-bulb son, they could have done so without nearly as much trouble. Instead, by forgetting to serve all their customers, they did far more damage to themselves and their enterprise than would have happened if they simply lost this woman's business going forward.

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