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Senior Correspondent

It's the old chicken or the egg question. Which comes first, your customers or your employees?

Herb Kelleher, one of the founders and former CEO of Southwest Airlines, an industry leader in customer service, had this to say: "I felt that our people must come first, and if you treat them right, they'll treat your customers right, the customers will come back, and that will make the shareholders happy." 

Howard Schultz, Starbucks' founder, claims their competitive advantage was to recruit well-educated people who were eager to communicate their passion for coffee. This became his edge in an industry where turnover was 300 percent a year. Schultz was also willing to provide benefits and pay scales above market. Starbucks' retention rate runs about 5 times the industry average, but most importantly, Starbucks attracts people with great attitudes who make customers feel at home. Customers are loyal to their Starbucks fix and the great service experience they have come to expect anywhere they go, and anytime they visit a Starbucks.   

Knowing that attitudes are highly contagious, both companies believe in hiring folks with great attitudes. They want to make sure that their employees consistently infect each other in positive and productive ways, and that it all ultimately spills over, consistently creating a great and memorable customer experience.

It's very much about building a people-centered culture. We are talking about  a culture that engages and energizes employees. A culture designed to enable all employees to do their best work. 

We get the occasional comment…"Oh that's just about all that touchy feely stuff." We would have to respectfully disagree with that perspective. It's about leveraging your most valuable resource, the only resource that has the potential to appreciate in value, and the potential to appreciate the value of all other aspects of your business. Mac Anderson in his book, 212° Service, says "Life is like a game of tennis. The player who serves well seldom loses, and the same can be said for any business on the planet." At his company, Simple Truths, new employees hear the same speech from Mac. "You must always remember you're not here to serve me. I'm here to serve you. I'm here to give you the tools, the resources and the products to convert our customers into raving fans." Mac believes his job is to create an atmosphere where folks will want to serve each other. And, oh by the way, Simple Truths happens to be a great place to work. Your employees are your brand, and your customers experience your brand through your employees. The way those employees treat your customers is your only sustainable competitive advantage.

"People are acknowledged as the organization's greatest assets, not mere expenses related to a line on a profit and loss statement." — Dan Sanders 

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