Which comes first, customer or employee experience?  This may sound like the proverbial “chicken or egg” question.  Both promise greater employee engagement and enhanced financial performance.  Many companies are underperforming on both. In fact, Gallup has found that fully 70% of employees do not feel engaged at work while Satmetrix reports that industry Net Promoter Scores have not improved in the last five years.  With so much room for improvement, does it really matter where you start or even whether your customer and employee experiences are integrated?

In our experience, there is a clear answer.  The best outcomes are achieved when the company begins by addressing key customer experience questions and incorporates employee experience within a customer experience framework and umbrella.

As Peter Drucker stated in 1954, “The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.”  Customer experience is the sum of what happens as customers interact with your company and how they feel throughout.  Everything should start with a clear understanding of your target customer and the customer need(s) that your organization can solve better than anyone else.  This definition not only helps to clarify your organization’s mission and purpose – but also begins to create what the ideal customer experience should look like.  Identifying key tipping point moments that have a disproportionate impact on your customer experience is a key ingredient in creating a roadmap for the important change you will undertake.  This begins your organization’s journey towards creating a customer centric culture where you put customers at the heart of everything you do.

Employee experience is the sum of the various perceptions employees have about their interactions with the organization in which they work.  If your business exists to “create and keep a customer,” then it follows that your employee experience should be designed to help them serve those customers.  Some employees are in direct contact with customers while others indirectly impact customers through their actions.  But in all cases, employees ultimately influence whether your organization delivers the customer experience that distinguishes you from your competitors.

Too often, we see organizations thinking that improving the employee experience means taking actions to increase employee “happiness” or “satisfaction.”  These actions may include enhancing the on-boarding experience, providing free food and game rooms, hosting parties after work, and changing the work environment.  However, none of these efforts contribute directly to improving the goal of an improved customer experience.

Engaged employees are attracted to your organization because they see value in serving the needs of your customers.  When employees care – when they are engaged – they use discretionary effort to better serve the needs of your customers.  Gallup reports that the top 25% most engaged teams experience 20% higher customer metrics, 21% higher productivity, and 22% higher profitability.

Those organizations that focus on what is needed to help employees best deliver the desired customer experience (with new tools, resources, skills and training, etc.) have more sustained impact – both on customer experience and employee engagement.  The Mayo Clinic is a wonderful example.  Mayo strives to deliver patient-centered healthcare, which requires collaboration and cooperation between all members of the patient’s care team.  Mayo’s hiring practices, care model, information systems, facilities design, compensation, and reward systems all reinforce this focus.  The employee experience and level of engagement for those who are attracted to this customer orientation are outstanding.  Talented, highly skilled care givers that desire autonomy and individual rewards are simply a poor fit.  To the extent that those individuals find their way into the system, their experience is likely to be frustrating.

In Vineet Nayar’s book, Employees First, Customer Second, he argues that “your employees are the gateway to customer satisfaction, and if they aren’t happy, the customer isn’t going to be happy.”   While employees are indeed the gateway to customer satisfaction (whether the customer engages directly with those employees or not), if your organization hasn’t used customer experience to shape its goals, culture and business model, implementing an employee first culture risks becoming internally focused and externally irrelevant.