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From the time I started my first business, selling cakes while I attended university, I treated my customers like gold. Over time as I needed to employ staff, I realized it was important to treat my employees just as if they were customers – because they are the face of my business. If the internal customer is not happy, the external one won’t be either. Here are seven ways to treat employees with the same respect, patience, and importance you give to customers:
Speak Their Language. Coming from my background as a lawyer, I had trouble communicating with my employees when I launched a fashion-design company in Nigeria. The employees were skilled but uneducated; it was as though I spoke in a different dialect. It’s easy for an entrepreneur to be cocky and think because you had the big dream to set up your business you had to be served, but I realized it was up to me, not the employees, to find ways to communicate effectively. Because many of them didn’t read or write, I found that drawing diagrams on the clothing patterns was a really effective way to give them instructions.
Raise Them Up Through Education. While I came down to the employees’ level originally, I needed to raise them up in the long run. I engaged a tutor a few days a week to help my employees develop their language skills. Ongoing employee training is essential. However, the training should never be simply about giving workers education, but about providing them with skills that directly help the business.
Tell Them What You Expect. I had a friend who was going to dismiss her housekeeper because she didn’t meet her standards of cleanliness. But I realized my friend hadn’t bothered to explain her expectations to the housekeeper. Once she did, the housekeeper became more effective in her duties. The same concept is true in my business. It’s pointless to be critical of your employees’ performance until you clearly delineate what you expect of them, because their standards may be different.
Make It Okay to Ask Questions. People are often afraid to ask questions because they think it reflects badly on them. I made it clear to my employees that it was okay to ask for clarification. I had an open-door policy. When employees saw they could ask questions without retribution or punishment, they came to me with more questions, and became better, more productive workers.
Put a Clear Structure In Place. In my country, tailors typically work by a process called “freehand cutting,” where they cut into the material without using a pattern. For my business to succeed, however, I needed a systematized approach that produced a uniform product. When I hired new employees, I found they adjusted to my system when I put forward our organizational structure and operating procedures and explained everything upfront. People will adapt quickly to new concepts if you guide them and clearly show the reasons behind it.
Identify Areas of Strength. In a creative business like fashion, I had to carefully match my employees’ skills with the needs of my business. Some employees are better with detailed work, so I had them produce clothing where that is important. Others take pride in turning out work faster, so I assigned them to tasks where speed is more important than exactitude. The key is to find what people do well, so you can give them duties that allow them to succeed.
Appreciate Their Importance. When I saw that some customers asked for clothing made by a specific employee, I realize what an important part of the company my workers were. In a service business, there’s nothing between your staff and your customers – so you need to regard them both as vital to your success.
This is the fifth in a series about Vital Voices, an organization that builds leadership and mentoring skills for women around the world. Look here in the coming weeks when another entrepreneur will share her story of, and tips for, building a successful small business.
Tuokpe Esisi is CEO of Tuopsy’s Enterprises, a clothing business in Lagos, Nigeria and a mentor for Vital Voices.
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