With soaring eCommerce, the window of express delivery has contracted from next day to same day to within the hour. Where does it end and what is the real cost of increasing customer demand? Some companies have taken ‘customer first’ to such an extreme that employee wellbeing is being sacrificed. This article explores ways to redress the balance, to protect your people and your reputation.

Every time someone clicks to order online, people at the other end are under pressure to fulfil that need. A growing cohort of behind-the-scenes workers has no direct customer interaction. Out of sight and out of mind, these people bear the brunt of unrealistic customer expectations. It raises the question, what lies behind the friendly interface of some of the world’s most modern, digital-first retailers?

The best way to dispel doubts is to elevate your Employer Value Proposition (EVP) alongside your Customer Value Proposition, so winning with the customer doesn’t come at the expense of employee wellbeing. Companies often prioritise their EVP when it becomes business critical, in the face of growing competition for talent, but an EVP is a tenet of any good business, regardless of the labour market. It protects reputations as well as staff. Employee reviews surfacing on Indeed and Seek, pointing to unrealistic expectations and toxic culture, are an early indicator of the potential reputational and recruitment cost of being overly fixated on customers. It’s time to engage staff and make them your biggest supporters.

Life and Death in the Warehouse, the BBC’s new factual-based drama, exposes that a ‘customer fixated’ culture is putting enormous pressure on employees in warehouses around the world. Based on the experiences of workers from many different companies, the film shows how ‘idle time,’ that is, toilet breaks and informal conversations and ‘pick rates’ (items picked for delivery per hour) are being constantly monitored and measured in real time, leading to disciplinary hearings, instant dismissals and worse.

This dystopian nightmare is the everyday reality of more and more young people, particularly where jobs are scarce. It highlights the lengths some workers have to go to, in order to meet aggressive targets, set by their managers. In Life and Death in the Warehouse, it’s as if the senior manager has swallowed a customer first playbook, using jargon to circumvent genuine care for employees, in the name of teamwork and the customer experience.

Brands that treat staff unfairly will ultimately be penalised. Awareness of the consequences of consumer demand is growing with organisations like New Zealand’s Transparency One showing the impact on food supply chains. Retailers will have to strike the right balance of employee satisfaction and customer commitment. The challenge is to do this while preserving the competitiveness they achieved by boosting the level of value customers expect beyond the reach of competitors.

Technology-enhanced service can help engage customers on their terms, at scale, but retailers need to be mindful of workforce burnout. Applied with a human lens, technology doesn’t just monitor and control a workforce to meet targets, it enhances the experience and serves the needs of both staff and customers.

A bold approach is for brands to take the lead on explaining the consequences of a ‘want it now’ culture and conveying limitations to customers. Acting with surprising transparency manages expectations and protects retailers from overstretching. It’s also an opportunity for competitive differentiation with a growing customer base of aware and empowered consumers. Fashion Revolution publishes a Fashion Transparency Index and is driving the #whomademyclothes movement.

Another way to create value is to pursue an insights-driven approach. Understand what’s driving customers to make tall orders and unlock alternative strategies to satisfy them. For example, do people need near-instant delivery because the product might not be suitable, so they need to factor in a return and re-order? Brands are exploring ways to get it right first time, such as made-to-order.

Leveraging a counter trend of slow fashion, H&M and Amazon are offering customisation to mainstream audiences. H&M is trialling 3-D scanners that take your measurements in-store, so you can get a perfectly fitting pair of jeans just a few weeks later. Amazon is selling $25 customised T-shirts.

Once seen as perpetuating overconsumption, H&M has got on the front foot and is now inspiring its people around the goal of circular fashion. The first to launch a clothing collection and recycling program in all its stores, the retailer has a comprehensive approach to sustainability and employee wellbeing. Its EVP offers staff the opportunity to ‘be yourself and more,’ emphasising open dialogue and internal advancement. Amazon, in contrast, has been the subject of several New York Times investigative reports, indicating it has sacrificed the needs of workers for faster delivery speeds. This makes its slow fashion offer seem like calculated opportunism.

Just because customers have come to expect something, doesn’t mean it’s the most meaningful thing, or the right thing, to offer. Reflecting on the unintended consequences of our actions, it’s time for customers to stop behaving like entitled 5-year-olds and for retailers to stop being helicopter parents. Every company has a duty of care to people, including those who don’t want to be treated like children – their employees.

This article first appeared in Inside Retail.