Customers vs. Employees: What People Aren’t Saying about Amazon’s Acquisition of Whole Foods

Which list would your company rather make: Best Places to Work or Best Customer Experience?

The good news is, companies don’t have to choose—they can make both lists. They can satisfy their employees and customers, and come out on top in both realms. In fact, the relationship between employee and customer experiences can and should be reciprocal.

Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey, after the company’s recent acquisition by Amazon, said Whole Foods focused on its employees at the “expense of our customers.” Whereas Amazon, year after year, ranks at or near the top of every evaluation of world-class customer experience, but hasn’t achieved that same level of recognition for its employee practices.

Working at Whole Foods is a pretty good gig. Employees receive many perks, from in-store discounts of up to 30 percent, affordable health insurance, and stock options, to massage therapy, yoga, and language classes. Employees have a voice (that’s actually heard) when it comes to their benefits packages, process improvements, and even new recipes.

Not to be mistaken, there’s nothing wrong—and a lot right—with treating your employees fairly with competitive wages, generous perks, and a genuinely caring work environment. But the company didn’t earn the nickname “Whole Paycheck” without good reason. Someone has to pay for all of those employee niceties. And over time, costly perks often lack the motivational aspect that companies seek from them, forcing leaders to focus on what really creates sustained employee engagement. And sometimes they’re simply uncertain where to turn.

A few months ago I wrote an article entitled, “What They Really Want: The Business Case for Elevating Employees’ Role in CX,” in which I discussed this exact topic. I acknowledge that companies are thinking further outside the box than ever to engage employees (e.g., company game rooms, always-full snack closets), but question whether these efforts are truly delivering the return on employee loyalty companies seek.

In the case of Whole Foods (and many other brands across the world) I would argue no. Did employee perks translate to positive experiences for customers? Not necessarily. And great customer experiences don’t always result in fulfilling employment, either. And at the end of the day, isn’t creating positive customer experiences that drive brand loyalty and high-value customer relationships what running a business is all about?

So how do you create this environment where employees are engaged, empowered, and motivated to deliver frictionless, individualized customer experiences? For the complete run down, read the aforementioned article, but in summary: ensure your employees know they are valued. Make them a part of the creation and evolution of the customer experiences your company delivers. Invite them to the conversation by asking for their feedback. Asking for the employee’s perspective on improving the brand’s delivery of customer experience—known as Voice of the Employee (VoE)—empowers employees to take ownership of CX outcomes. If employees are not bought in, initiatives meant to improve the customer experience could actually have the opposite effect.

Making data-driven decisions requires listening to your customers and your employees, and going deeper than traditional metrics. On the employee side, gauging your employee experience based on turnover and attrition can be misleading for a number of reasons (e.g., a dissatisfied employee who sticks around or an engaged employee who leaves to return to school). When measuring CX, metrics such as Net Promoter Score (NPS) or Overall Satisfaction (OSAT) can be misleading as well—they miss the nuances of the customer experience. Dig deeper into the unstructured feedback on human factors: staff helpfulness, friendliness, and attentiveness. Engaged employees with high levels of morale are more likely to shine in these areas, creating a reciprocal relationship that leads to an enviable cycle of positive customer and employee experiences.

As Amazon ventures into more brick-and-mortar endeavors, will its customer-first model continue working? Retail is a completely different animal than e-commerce—you must have your best, brightest, and strongest brand advocates at the front line. They are the representation and personification of your company—much different and more personal than a customer experience over the phone, email, or chat. For this reason, keeping staff engaged through an open and inclusive culture is paramount.

While Whole Foods may be a cautionary tale to other employee-first brands, it should not abandon the foundation that made it a success for so many years. If it’s going to scale back its employee-centricity, it needs to do so methodically and backed by data to ensure it invests in what creates highly engaged employees. I believe what it will ultimately learn is that making employees a part of customer experience creation is what truly keeps them happy and productive—not the perks.

What happens when you merge the world’s most customer-centric brand with one of the most employee-centric? Only time will tell, but the result could be revolutionary for both these brands, as well as the people who work for and buy from them.

About Author

Dr. Paul Warner VP Customer and Employee Experience Strategy

Change Region

Selecting a different region will change the language and content of

North America
United States/Canada (English)
DACH (Deutsch) United Kingdom (English)
Asia Pacific
Australia (English) New Zealand (English) Asia (English)