Chapter 14 – Happiness, Not Just for Customers Anymore

Most businesses will advertise, and even incent their employees to believe that the customer is #1.  They will espouse all sorts of flowery language in their mission statement, a document that no one probably ever even reads, much less follows.  To me, though, this thinking is flawed.  That is, if your customers are #1, does that make your employees #2?  And if so, how do you think that makes them feel?  Probably like #2.

In my experience I have had a lot more success with flipping this philosophy on its head.  To me, the employees should always come first.  After all, without them, there would be no business.  And, your employees have the unique ability to influence every transaction your business makes.

Of course, we all want a happy customer.  We want to delight those whom we serve, and we love getting positive feedback from especially satisfied customers.  However, we must understand that delighted customers are a symptom of a well-executed operation, not the cause of one.  Happy customers usually come from happy employees.

I first noticed this phenomenon on one of my first big business trips.  The business was growing fast and I was going to the big city to talk with some potential corporate customers.  The business was going well, and for the first time, we had big customers calling us.  The business had crossed through its baby stage, and now things were looking like they were going to work out, that this crazy idea for a company wasn’t that crazy after all.  There was money in the bank and life was good.  And as a reward for all of my hard work, I decided to treat myself on this trip and go first class all the way.

After landing in the big city, I checked into a well-known five-star hotel.  I had all sorts of preconceived notions about this place, and I expected a haute air of over-formality and elitism when I got there.  However, nothing could have been further from the truth.  I had one of the more pleasant, comfortable check-in processes I had ever had.  And, as someone who ran a business that prided itself on outstanding customer service, I was amazed just how good this place was.  They were killing it from a customer satisfaction perspective, and I have to say that this experience still sticks with me as one of the most warm, enjoyable customer experiences I have ever had.  So much so that I even forgot about what I was paying per night for a room.  I had touched customer experience excellence and I was just glad to be a part of it.

Over the course of the next several days, I noticed something odd, yet wonderful.  It seemed that everywhere I went people were saying hello to me.  I noticed this not only from the lobby and door staff every time I came and went, but also from every single hotel employee I passed.  Whether it was a member of the cleaning crew, or a handyman headed to fix something, I was met with warm, sincere hellos and good mornings.  It was bizarre to have everyone be so nice, but only from the perspective of wondering why things are not like this all the time.

This attitude extended beyond just the staff.  I had the most wonderful conversations with people on the elevator, with people waiting in line to be seated at the restaurant, practically everywhere.  In fact, it was not unusual to be waiting for the elevator, have the doors open, and be greeted with laughter.  There was a celebration going on all around me, and it was amazing.

On my way home, I reflected on this phenomenon.  The obvious conclusion was that happiness is contagious.  It also occurred to me that misery was contagious too, and that my main job as “the boss” was to choose what I wanted to have spread around.  Because, it really is a choice, and I had seen the results first-hand of what happens when you choose to create a happy environment for your employees.  Happiness begets more happiness.  Your employees and your customers are intimately bound together, and by seizing the opportunity to affect this influence in your favor, your business will run smoother than ever before.

So, when I got home, I saw my business in a whole new way.  I saw my business’ potential as a happiness machine, and I decided to make that my focus.  I knew we were already doing well with our customers, but I realized that I had never really asked myself how I was doing with the employees.

I interviewed each member of my staff to ask them how happy they were, and if they were doing what they really wanted to do.  I found out that some were, and others wanted to try something else.  For the ones that wanted something different, I asked them to think about what they wanted and I gave them my word that I would do everything I could to make it so.

For some of them, all they really wanted was a modification of their job duties, with the most common change simply giving them more autonomy and authority to accomplish the tasks they were charged with.  For others, I allowed them to do job sharing with the people who held the position they wanted.  And, after a short trial period, some found that the grass was not, in fact, greener from the other side of the fence, and they decided to stay where they were.  For others, they found new strengths they had only guessed they might have.  In fact, I gained one of the best customer service people I ever had by simply giving one of my assembly people a chance.  People tend to be good at what they enjoy, and by putting people in the places they want to be, an incredible win/win situation can be created.

Now, I understand that many small businesses to not have this capability, and that most (if not all) employees cannot just trade jobs.  However, as entrepreneurs, we are natural problem-solvers, and I found that just by taking the time to ask the staff about what they wanted, the dynamic of our employee/boss relationship shifted for the positive.  Figure out what works in your situation, with the opportunities and limitations you have available.  There is almost always a good solution hidden in there somewhere, and often all it takes to find it is simply taking the trouble to look.

An appreciated workforce is a loyal workforce, and a loyal workforce will cause you a tiny fraction of the problems a disloyal one will.  Now, I am not talking about just going through the motions and just saying you care about your employees (without taking the action to back it up).  People can smell insincerity a mile away, and a half-assed effort will yield you worse results than if you had just left everything alone.  I am saying that it is critical that you, as the boss, realize the truth.  Your employees truly are invaluable and it is vital you treat them as precious as they really are.  Gone are the days where most businesses can simply hire just about anyone to do a given job.  With all of the increased competition out there, hiring and retaining an exceptional staff is a key enabler of success.  Trying to achieve outstanding results with a mediocre staff has become nearly, if not totally, impossible.

I can hear what some of you are saying.  “But what if some of my employees are just not happy people?” If this is truly the case, then I would ask you if those are the types of employees you want.  I would ask you to see how their attitude not only affects the rest of the staff, but also the customers.  I would ask you to take a long look at the attitudes your business is spreading and decide if this is what you want.

Now, I am not advocating that you go through and immediately fire anyone wearing a frowny-face.  I am saying that it is important to make the decision that a happy workforce is a tremendous asset, and it is worth the effort to foster this in your business.  Plus, many unhappy people are capable of being happy.  Perhaps there is something you are not doing that could affect this.  Take the time to find out.  And, if you find out that someone is just genuinely unhappy and there is nothing you can do about it, don’t worry.  There is nothing a cantankerous person despises more than a happy environment.  They cannot abide someplace where their negativity can never flourish and odds are they will leave on their own to find someplace that suits them better.

Or, I can hear you saying, “What if I cannot afford to hire exceptional employees?”  Well, if you are in any kind of contemporary industry, I would put to you that you cannot afford to hire anything less than an exceptional staff.  There are just too many other fish out there competing for the same food, and it is just too hard to stay competitive if you are mediocre.  Especially in a down-economy, being exceptional is a pre-requisite.  And, when the economy recovers, how do you expect to attract (and retain) exceptional staff?  You guessed it, give them a great environment.

Happiness is truly the lubricant for your business, and with the hyper-competitive nature of most markets these days, this is something that has just gotten too important to ignore.   Everyone, including you, will reap the benefits of creating a happy environment, so why not work a little harder to make it so?  You will be “happy” you did.