Strange as it may sound, one of the best strategies you can have for putting customers first is keeping them in second place. Second place? Behind who? Behind your employees.

John Kotter and James Heskett note in their book, "Corporate Culture and Performance," that companies that consistently value and care for their employees exhibit four times faster revenue growth than those treating their employees in a less exemplary manner. Why? Well,
employees that are valued and treated well by their employers pass it along to customers.

The airline industry provides a couple of classic examples of the results of treating employees well and not so well. No airline seems to do a
better job treating its employees well than Southwest. The employees reward the airline by passing along their good feelings in the form of
outstanding customer service. Despite its cattle-car-in-flight business model, Southwest has managed to generate fierce customer loyalty. Other airlines have copied Southwest's business model, but fail to achieve the same results. Pleasant smiles, friendly jokes and banter, and great customer service from Southwest's employees make the difference.

American Airlines currently represents the opposite. Somewhere down the line, American's management got crosswise with the pilots. A strike and an unauthorized work slowdown resulted. Though a federal judge found the pilots in the wrong and forced them back in the air, relations remain chilled. Many, though by no means all of American's pilots, no longer seem to make the extra effort to meet schedules. The gray areas of the rule book are interpreted in black and white terms. So what if flights are delayed or cancelled?

In the case of American, it's hard to say the pilots are ill-treated. They're at the top of the aviation pay scale. It's not the pay. It's
that they don't feel valued and cared for. Pilots are proud professionals (even if they're sometimes prima donnas). They expect respect.
American's pilots feel they aren't getting it.

In essence, the pilots are getting even with management by driving the customers to other airlines. Fortunately for American, the pilots have
very little interaction with customer. If their attitude spills over to the flight attendants and gate agents, the airline will soon be in serious
trouble.

It's stupid for employees to take out their ill feelings toward their bosses on customers. In the long run, all they're really doing by hurting
their company is hurting themselves. This doesn't mean it won't happen. At one time Eastern Airlines was a powerhouse. It was one of the world's biggest airlines. Then, the machinists, pilots, and flight attendants literally drove the company into bankruptcy. They showed Eastern
president Frank Borman. So what if everyone lost their jobs in the process?

If employees can drive one of the world's largest service companies into oblivion, think what they can do to your company if they don't feel
valued. Small companies are not immune. Large "consolidators" are buying up independent contractors in the plumbing, air conditioning, and
electrical industries. I've heard about case after case where an acquired company had a unique culture that was destroyed by the acquirer. The
employees become disenchanted. The best leave. Others fail to go the extra yard. Performance tanks.

Be generous with your praise. Coach rather than berate. Give the employee that goes the extra yard something special every now and then,
whether it's treating them to lunch or handing out a pair of movie tickets. Have a pizza party at the shop every so often. Give out lots of
awards and plaques. Make fun of yourself. Have fun with your employees.

There are a hundred opportunities every day for an employee to help or hurt you. You need them. Moreover, you need them to give that extra
ounce, to work for the customer. Treat them well and they will. Don't, and you'll suffer.

Matt Michel is president of the Service Roundtable (www.ServiceRoundtable.com), an organization dedicated to helping contractors prosper. Matt is also the publisher of Comanche Marketing, a free marketing e-zine. Subscriptions are available at www.ComancheMarketing.com. You can contact him directly at matt.michel@serviceroundtable.com. Or send your comments to Contracting Business at letters@contractingbusiness.com.