The Power of Employees First, Part 2 of 3

Updated: Feb 7

The customer is always right.


I worked as a Sales Engineer in Aerospace for five and a half years before opening The Coffee Shelf. There was much I loved about that job. Especially my travels throughout North America and Europe. The primary negative was time away from my family.


One summer, on the backend of a seven-hour flight across the Atlantic Ocean, sitting in the crowded commuter terminal at Washington Dulles Airport, an announcement from the intercom system informed me I would be waiting another two hours before my plane departed to Columbia, SC. We had already been delayed an hour. Sigh…


“Back to my book,” I grumbled to myself.


Then I heard a commotion from the podium where the female Ticket Agent was standing. A gentleman, I use the term generously, began spilling all of his frustrations to her. It was verbally abusive. If her supervisor was in the area, “why not come to her defense?” I wondered.


I knew the answer. The customer is always right. This term, coined by a well-meaning British retailer in the early 20th century, has caused most businesses to perish the thought of ever correcting bad behavior from a customer.


Customers are everything to The Coffee Shelf. Especially regular customers. If we cannot increase our customer base while keeping our regular customers, goodbye to “Jerry as The Business owner,” and say hello to, “Jerry’s Return to The Corporate World.”


But the customer is not always right.


If you truly want to place your employees first, this is where you, as a business owner, will be challenged. No matter where your business is located you are going to encounter inappropriate behavior by a customer. It is not going to happen when you are present. This type of customer would not dare bully the owner. But a teenager on her first job? That is fair game.


When you have to make the decision to side with your employee, it is likely going to result in the loss of business. This is why so many business owners will allow a customer to get away with bullying an employee.


I feel compelled to further define inappropriate behavior by a customer. It is not defined by general rudeness. Customers are not required to smile and they are not required to say thank you. In other words, being nice is optional.

  • I don’t mean to imply we have rude customers. Far from it. Chapin, South Carolina, is a wonderful place to run a coffee shop and bookstore. We have truly been embraced by this community.


Further, we teach our employees to have empathy. A person walking through our doors is a person living a life. Maybe they are suffering from a breakup, or they were laid off from a job, or a son or daughter is struggling to fit in at school. The body language you are receiving from a person you barely know very likely has nothing to do with you. This is true with life in general. In other words, “it’s not about you.”


But there is a line.


I will provide insight on two situations I was faced with at The Coffee Shelf, exactly how I responded, and the result with the customer.


May 2017

A regular customer, frustrated because one of my young Baristas could not calculate change in her head, verbally berated her. She walked to the back in tears and had to be calmed by her Manager. This was a Saturday and I was not present.


I addressed this with the customer the following Monday. He proceeded to lecture me regarding how I train my employees. Two days later, still waiting for his apology for how he treated a 15-year old girl, I addressed another issue with him. He again argued with me. I asked him to leave and never return to The Coffee Shelf.


April 2019

A regular customer received a drink which did not taste quite right. Our policy since day one is and has been; if you don’t like your beverage, we will make another one, or refund your purchase. Instead of requesting another beverage, this customer began making derogatory comments about the Barista who had made her drink.


After a few days of this, hoping she would cease her behavior, I took the customer aside. I reminded her of our policy of a free drink if she is ever dissatisfied. I then informed her if she ever again makes a derogatory comment toward one of employees, she will be asked to leave and never return. Nearly one year later she is still a regular customer and is pleasant to all of my employees.

Happy Employees equals Great Customer Service

These two outcomes sent a clear message to my employees. I have their back. This is another reason why we excel at customer service.


I’m going to make a shocking statement. Ready? The overwhelming majority of people want to perform their jobs well. Almost no one wakes up in the morning and decides, “today I’m going to try my best to screw everything up.”


Your employees want to please you. But if they are concerned about immediate, negative feedback from management because a customer became angry, your employees will become nervous with your customers. Nervousness often leads to closed body language, which can come across as rude.


If your employees have the confidence to be themselves they will better learn to handle customer complaints. Without the fear of management reprisal they will become your greatest ambassadors.

  • They will feel comfortable coming to you for advice regarding how they handled a customer complaint. If you provide a thoughtful response, perhaps an example how they might have handled it better, they will internalize the lesson and become even better at working with customers.


Knowing you have their back builds loyalty to you and your business. This adds to their happiness to be a part of your business, which again, translates to great customer service.


When a free beverage is provided to a customer as a result of an employee mistake, and I’m present, I might offer the customer a free cookie in addition to the new drink. Then I’ll turn to the employee and state, “Don’t worry about it. You’ve been doing great today.”


Reducing the pressure to always make a product correctly will lead to fewer mistakes over time. Reducing the pressure of having to always say the perfect thing to a customer will lead to a more comfortable conversation with open body language. Customers will return often to experience this open warmth.


Treat your employees well and they will do things like, coming in after hours to scrub the floors as a surprise

Back in May 2017, when I had to tell a customer to leave and never return, was tough. We were still struggling as a small business. Chasing away revenue did not help matters. But it was the right thing to do. And I would make the same decision time and time again.


My employees are my greatest asset. They are the reason we have a large customer base. They are the “behind the scenes” key to the current success of The Coffee Shelf.


Note. Treating your employees as number one is not just applicable to a small business in the service sector. It will yield positive results even in large corporations, no matter the industry. If you doubt this, then I encourage you to search for quotes from Richard Branson, of Virgin Group.



Part three coming soon.


#leadership #employees #smallbusiness






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