What simple change of mindset can change your business and the lives of your customers and employees?


“What do I need to do to keep my customers coming back and my employees not looking for other jobs?” Ah, the cry of so many business owners. Why are customers so fickle? Why do employees have no loyalty? You have a great product and you do your best to provide service. You pay fairly and have competitive benefits. What else needs to be done?

“The purpose of business is to provide value for stakeholders.” These are the words of Ed Freeman, the father of stakeholder theory and professor at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, and they describe not only the purpose of business, but the key to customer and employee loyalty. But Freeman’s reasoning runs counter to what has become fundamental thinking to most business people.

If you are under 60 years of age, you have most likely been brought up believing the purpose of business is to make money and profit. This is a sentiment that was hammered into our social consciousness by the 1970 pronouncement of Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business —to use its resources to engage in activities designed to increase its profits.”

The idea took hold pretty quickly and has infiltrated every corner of the business world. But what’s been the outcome of this mindset? Well, the news is not good I’m afraid.

“Greed is good,” the famous line of fictitious business man Gordon Gecko in the film Wall Street has become a mantra. Businesses have marginalized customers and employees as tradeoffs for more profit with terrible consequences in its wake. We see it every day.

Businesses enforce policies and rules that make even the simplest and most just considerations for customers a difficulty in order to save any costs of solving problems. Products that prove unsafe continue to be sold until public or political pressures force companies to do the right thing, all in order to postpone the costs of fixing the issue. Unethical selling practices are encouraged and rewarded in order to increase revenues and keep shareholders happy.

As far as employees, they are treated like resources to be wrung out like a wet towel in order to get the most out of them. Federal laws, rather than ethics, morals, and integrity, have to be mandated to keep employees safe and to protect their rights. Competition for employees is the only thing keeping things like healthcare and vacation time part of the benefits package. And in the worst manifestation of the dehumanization of the workforce, when financial results get tight or goals need to be met, employees are jettisoned with mass layoffs in order to balance the books or meet arbitrary financial targets.

These are just some of the things going on in the name of profit at any cost, and we wonder why customers and employees are not loyal.

Let’s get real clear. If you want customers and employees to value your business, your business needs to value them. You need to move your mindset from trying to get more to working to give more.

To this end, businesses need to stop selling by persuading and instead sell by solving problems. Persuasion is a getting game while solving problems is a giving game. Persuasion is about doing whatever you can to get people to go your way to do what you want. Problem solving is about giving your expertise to make things better, fix something, or provide for a need. To do this, you have to listen more and try to understand all of the challenges. You have to give your time and knowledge. You have to demonstrate an attitude that says, “I want to help you because I value you.”

Once products or services are sold, you need to provide true support. If it isn’t right or a mistake was made, show some humility and apologize. Then, do whatever it takes to make it right —yes, even if it means returning money. Do the right thing. Send a message that says, “We value your success more than a sale.”

With employees, stop managing them like machines and instead ask more questions and listen for the solutions because your employees are out there on the front line and probably know a lot more about possible solutions than you think. You see, management is a getting game, it is about obtaining and keeping power whereas asking and listening are giving games, they are about empowering others and giving them opportunities to contribute.

We also need to look at what we reward. People need to be rewarded for steady progress, not just goal achievement. And when people are struggling, we need to help them, not threaten them. We need to make losing a job the absolute last resort.

And when finances get rocky, and they will, we need work with team members instead of against them. We need to offer temporary pay cuts or rotating furloughs as ideas for getting through rough patches, not layoffs. Employees need to see that they matter. They need to know they are valued.

Now, while I have been pontificating on the benefits and moral rightness of giving, there is a getting piece here too. When you demonstrate how much you value customers and employees, they pay you back. Customers provide good word-of-mouth marketing, they come back and purchase more, and they stay with you even when times get tough. Take the example of Whole Foods Market. When the store was in its infancy, they experienced a devastating flood in their only store in Austin, TX. While this would have sent most businesses into bankruptcy, for Whole Foods, it brought out the good in their customers. Because the store regularly demonstrated care for them, those customers came out in force to help clean up the mess and help the store get back on its feet. Caring for their customers has continued in the company and they are now a multi-billion dollar business.

From an employee perspective, when an employer shows them how much they value them, those employees tend to stay longer even when they get other offers. They tend to not make their pay the constant conversation. They volunteer more creativity and problem-solving efforts instead of simply delivering the minimum expectation. They come in early and stay late to make the business more successful. They are more loyal and more committed.

As you can see, you get back what you give. And to answer our opening question, it should be clear. If you want customers to keep coming back and employees to stay and offer their best, you need to value them as much as you want them to value you. You need to change your thinking from “what can I get” to “what do I need to give.” Once you do this, everything will change.

There is a comedian named Michael Jr. who, during his shows, tells his story of this very change in mindset and how it has impacted his entire life. Years ago while sitting waiting to go on stage for one of his shows, Michael was thinking about why he was putting himself through all of the pains of being a stand-up comedian. He loved doing it but there seemed to be something missing. He had always been told that the reason for being a comedian was to get laughs from the audience. While there may be some truth to that, he felt it wasn’t fulfilling. Something was lacking. The feeling was that doing this just to get was selfish and lacked the joy that comes from giving.

This thought was the flash of insight he needed. Instead of getting, what could he give instead? As he thought, it came to him. Rather than think, “I am here to get laughs from people,” what would it be like to approach it like this, “I am here to give people an opportunity to laugh.” With this new mindset, he went out to have one of the best performances of his career. He was able to see success as something based not on how many laughs he got but rather how many opportunities he gave people to laugh and experience more joy. The scoreboard simply changed but it would have huge implications.

Later, after the show, as he was signing autographs, he spotted a homeless man sitting on the opposite street corner. With this new mindset, he paused to think, “Who could use an opportunity to laugh more than this guy?” and proceeded across the street. He picked up a conversation with the man and many laughs were had. Michael had given the man the opportunity to laugh and the man took it.

From this experience, Michael has made it a regular habit to not only hold this giving mindset during his shows but to demonstrate it by visiting homeless shelters, centers of refuge for battered women and children, and prisons to give people who rarely get opportunities to laugh, more opportunities than they can count. The shift from get to give changed Michael Jr’s life as well as countless lives of others.

So, if a simple change in mindset from get to give can change a comedian’s life and the trajectory of his career, how might it do the same for you and your business? What do you need to do to demonstrate how much you value both your customers and employees? What do you need to give?

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