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Who's king -- customer or employee?

  • Story Highlights
  • Motivation and aligned goals are absolutely critical to success
  • Being competitive comes from having better ideas than your competition
  • JWT idea: "nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements"
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By Orlando Hooper-Greenhill, Director of Global Planning, JWT
for CNN
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(CNN) -- "Which is more important -- the customer being king or the employees being highly motivated (keeping in mind reduction of operating expenses and being competitive)?" - Ronald Mahondo, I&M Bank, Kenya

Who's king -- customer or employee?

The customer is king. The customer is always right. These are phrases that have been with us for a while. As business and marketing environments have become tougher, it's true that those companies that have found out what the king wants -- and provided it -- have been successful. This would make it easy, if only it was clear which king to ask.

Many companies draw a distinction between "consumers," those who are the end-user of a product or service, and "customers," those who are the trade, distributors and so on. This kind of customer is very powerful indeed -- especially if they are Wal-Mart or Tescos. So which customer is more king than the other? And what if they don't agree on what they want? Sounds like war.

In global companies the complexity rises. They have consumers and customers, but it's also common that employees of that company are also customers of other employees. A trend at the moment is that regional employees are customers for central employees. Motivation and, more importantly, aligned goals, are absolutely critical to success. Getting this wrong can be costly in many ways -- not least in morale, time and money.

The real truth is that this is not a question of "or." Customer and employee satisfaction and motivation are critical. The challenge is to create a virtuous circle. Motivated employees are a great way of delivering what the customer wants, be that service, fast moving consumer goods, innovation, or anything else, and happy customers make employees feel rewarded.

Of course, the virtuous circle has to start somewhere. In creative industries such as ours, often the job is to stretch further than the customer can see. They can tell you what they like today, but tomorrow looks misty and murky. A motivated group of creative individuals love nothing more than the art of invention, the creation of the new, the alchemy of an idea. If you want a king, it's the idea, not the customer or the employee.

Being competitive comes from having better ideas than your competition: an idea about targeting a particular group of people, an idea about a new product, an idea about how or where to distribute it, or an idea about how to advertise it.

In 1944 James Webb Young, an employee of JWT, defined an idea as "nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements." It's a definition that we continue to find very useful today. Your customers are an excellent source of the familiar; a highly motivated employee will most likely be the one who combines the familiar in a new way, creating the idea, and the competitive edge.

On my way to work this morning with a trainload of people in glorious iPod isolation, I wondered what kind of company Apple would be today if the employees had been thinking the customer was king instead of working out how to combine some music with a little bit of one of their computers.

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