This is not a new concept; I became aware of it a few years ago at a CTAM conference. I think it’s time this industry put customers in their proper place in our list of priorities. Second. I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve seen evidence lately to suggest that in a service business the best way to take care of customers is to take care of the people taking care of customers. I heard Starbucks’ honcho Howard Schultz talk about this. (Remember when success used to mean a presence on each of the four corners of the globe? Now it’s a presence on each of the four corners of a block.) In no uncertain terms, Schultz detailed the vital role workers with a sense of ownership played in the coffee retailer’s meteoric rise. At a time when fast food joints like McDonald’s were hiring part-time staff, paying them little, giving them only basic training and even less in the way of health care and retirement plans, Starbucks did something outrageous. It treated its people like people. It paid a little more than the competition; offered a livable benefits package; and allowed even part-time employees to participate in a then unheard-of profit-sharing program. Isn’t giving an employee a piece of the action, however small, the best way to instill in that staff member a sense of ownership? And don’t think the difference between Burger King and Starbucks is just accounting. The difference between gladly ordering an overpriced double latte at Starbucks and dutifully ordering a whopper and fries at Burger King is in the air. It’s palpable; you can feel it the minute someone asks for your order. For those who missed Paul Maxwell’s excellent column in yesterday’s CableFAX Daily, there were some sobering numbers; nearly one million cable customers lost to DBS in the first seven months of ’04. And while I am not suggesting that a greater commitment to employees will eliminate such losses, I believe it couldn’t hurt. And it might just have a profound impact on the hemorrhaging. When I look at the billions of dollars being earned in cable, I wonder how much of it – or little – is working its way into the portfolios of the industry’s rank and file. Sure, cable’s front line employees make a decent wage and receive a steady paycheck. By most accounts, they have OK health care and retirement plans – not to mention quality-of-life perks, like summer picnics and holiday parties. But how many customer service reps feel the threat to their livelihoods each time they take a disconnect call? And how many technicians not only understand the importance of eliminating a ghost on channel three, but see the connection between their ability to fix that ghost and their ability to pay for their kids’ schooling? I guarantee you, a personal stake in the company’s fortunes would change that overnight. I’ve heard of some great things happening across the country, where MSOs have invested millions to provide employees a more livable work environment. That’s great, but it’s just one step. Those same MSOs should let employees share in the ebb and flow of the company’s finances by giving them some type of profit sharing. Can MSOs afford such a radical concept? Considering the past seven months, I think the more pertinent question is: can they afford not to? Want your customers to remain loyal? Take care of the people who take care of them. Symonds says it’s time to put your frontline people first and your customers second. Curtis Symonds can be reached at email@example.com.