When your employees are also your customers

When your employees are also your customers

Even simple relationships are complex because virtually all of them involve some transactional element, however small. A mother’s love for her child may be complete but she hopes for a good, loving offspring. She may hope for more than that, too, but even this small expectation, of one of the most intimate relationships we can ever have, is hoping for some reward. Giving a beggar a dollar may seem a perfect gift but it usually has the hope of feeling good attached to it. Unconditional love and unconditional giving are both extremely rare.

Customer relationships are clearly meant to be transactional – goods and services for money. The relationship arising from such dealings is, on the surface, quite simple. If the price is seen as fair, payment is made in a timely way and if the product or service is satisfactory there should be satisfaction on both sides. In practice and perhaps surprisingly, the majority of such transactions are seen by both parties to be satisfactory most of the time. Buying and selling would be awkward events if they weren’t.

A change in expectations
When your customers are also your employees there is a whole new ball game added. Expectations now involve all the elements of regular buyer and seller with the added flavour that you have to live with your customers as well. Well, not quite literally, of course. If you literally do so you probably need to consult a lawyer rather than me. Not so much an eternal triangle, that particular situation would seem to be an eternal smouldering heap. If that seems a frivolous view of relationships, remember that dealings with colleagues often involve small levels of intimacy far short of amorous or sexual. They can be just as complicating as if they were.

Chemistry is the least understood of the factors that determine our relationships. It is, nonetheless, a major one. How it arises is less important than the issues it raises. Feelings from way back in time, even before we were born, are instilled as instincts to protect us. They involve inflections of voice, smell, interpretation of body language, eye contact, mouth position, speed of breathing, style of hairdo, clothes, jewellery, watches, facial hair and deformities of all sorts. Somewhere in our genes there is a clue to dangers experienced, hurt done, wounds unhealed that may surface suddenly. A boy at school was uncompromisingly rude to me in a way that upset me tremendously. Anyone who looks like him makes me shudder and I have to correct for that instinctive feeling. And that’s just one I know about. I may have thousands I don’t.

Be friendly
There is some good in most people even if it can be difficult to see. Relationships with colleagues are something we should cherish, whether they buy from us or not. At their best they are a mine of information and a ton of support. At their worst they can kill your career. However much you instinctively dislike or distrust them, try to make friends with them. Even the biggest scoundrels find it difficult to stab you in the back while they are chatting to you at the front. It can be done, of course, but most people find it too duplicitous. So make friends even if it hurts but keep a wary eye on those you instinctively distrust. Your instincts, even those from the cave, are good guides.

When employees are also customers, the complexity of the relationships is even greater. Now you have all the emotional transactions of workmates plus the functional transactions of buying and selling. In a world of increasing taxation, barter is an attractive and economic way to deliver benefits without incurring the Finance Minister’s rage. Companies are therefore happy to give employees special terms – and, if stocks are getting out of date, very special terms. This may also save certain stages in packaging, an additional incentive to use this sales route.

Gather feedback
Companies offering special terms to their employees usually fail to collect feedback on the performance of the product – a great mistake. Employees are nearly always disarmingly forthright in their opinions and, though some of them can be taken with a pinch of salt, they are all worth listening to. The views expressed may be about the management of the business as much as the performance of the products. That, too, makes interesting reading.

The job remains the priority
The primary relationship between an employer and an employee remains, inevitably, the job. No matter how much beneficial prices generate additional sales, the work is about getting the product to the bulk of consumers. Employees can make small but significant customer outlets but their first job is to get the product ready for dispatch. Any serious distraction from that should be limited or stopped. In the vast delivery halls of, say, Amazon, employee sales need careful handling to avoid providing scope for pilfering.

The best rule for handling employee sales came from a small Scottish producer of fine food. The owner / boss said to me that he treated employees like employees and customers like customers and found this was the best way to combine the two.

They are, after all, wearing different hats at different times.