Every business has three customers: the shareholders, the employees and the buyers of the services and/or products. Only one can be your primary customer. Who do you think is your primary customer, and are your business practices congruent with that decision?

Who is your primary customer?Most business owners and leaders think they know who their primary customer is, and most presume it is the one who buys their wares. The reality though is that a strategic advantage can be achieved by making, planning and communicating the right decision as to who truly is your primary customer and taking the appropriate actions.

When it comes to your stakeholders, employees and customers, who will take priority over the others when there is a conflict or a decision on resources? For some it’s the stakeholders, and short-term gains are often the poorly chosen priority that ends up sacrificing long-term potentials. This has been evident with drug companies who ignored data that showed potential dangers with their drugs but the choice was borderline enough that putting the pharmaceuticals in the FDA approved “black box” labeling with additional warnings was enough for them to justify the risk of hurting the customers but reaping great short-term profits.

Other drug companies like Merck or Johnson and Johnson took products off the shelf when the risk was small to the customer but their adherence to the priority of the customer over the shareholder was clear enough to justify their losing tens of billions of dollars in the short term because of their decisions on priority. Long term, both companies made up for those losses and recouped market share to competitors with misaligned priorities.

For others, their employees are the clear and decided primary customer of their business. Herb Kellerer is renowned for having made this strategic choice for Southwest airlines and not being timid about communicating the choice to anyone. He and his management team make the fact clear to investors and customers alike that the employees at Southwest are the clear and decided priority of the company. This communication has been made in advertising, with employees and even to shareholders. Zappos, Google and other teams have shown that the end customer is treated to what they rate as superior service because the quality of service these highly engaged and far happier employees give to the customer, all because the employee is the primary customer

Time and again it is shown that the quality of your customer service is only as good as the poorest treatment that you give your employees.

McDonalds made a strategic choice for 50 years that the primary customer was not the consumer, nor their employees but the stakeholders represented by the real estate investors and franchisees. When that prioritization was starting to wane in its effectiveness, they consciously and publically switched the priority to making the consumer the primary customer, and this soon reflected in innovations around the product and environs of their restaurants.

Have a dialogue with your leadership team debating which of the three potential customers are primary and how all are ranked. Identify where you succeed in being congruent in meeting this prioritization as well as where you may be failing to be congruent with your decided priorities.

The next step is to recognize people in your organization for successfully walking out the priorities. Ultimately, your team will follow not only the words of the leader but whom you most reward based on their prioritization of the primary customer. Send us a story of how your team has walked out an unusual but successful effort to serve the primary customer over another and receive a free set of books for you and your exemplar.