“Companies must put their people—not their customers—first,” writes Hal Rosenbluth, CEO of an international travel management company, in his 1992 classic book, “The Customer Comes Second.” At first glance, these words read like heresy against the great body of advertising that, for decades, has ostensibly made a religion out of the primacy of customers and their every concern. We think that what Rosenbluth has to say, beyond that tongue-in-cheek title, is the basis of worthy advice for all electrical contractors who are dedicated to operating a successful service-oriented business. How does it apply to electrical contracting, though? For that, we must begin with a little history.

In the late 1800s, Marcus Rosenbluth, Hal’s great-grandfather, invented a new business in Philadelphia. He established a prototype “travel agency,” which focused on the pressing needs of European immigrants who, at the time, were increasingly venturing across the Atlantic to begin a new life in America. Energetic and resourceful, Marcus Rosenbluth’s prototype went well beyond the immediate needs of the market, arranging trans-Atlantic passage for clients. He loaned them money, and better yet, he helped them find jobs. As a result, his business steadily grew and prospered.

Few companies survive a century, but Rosenbluth’s did. And it prospered. By the year 2000, the enterprise was achieving revenues measured in billions of dollars, thanks to a management strategy and leadership that, from time to time, had progressively taken steps to “reinvent” the organization to adjust to the demands of the marketplace. In the midst of the Internet era of do-it-yourself travel arrangements, when any individual consumer with a home computer can go online to buy inexpensive airline tickets, book lodging and rent a car without the help of a travel agent, this privately owned company did not fail. By 2002, the company had office locations in 50 states and 53 countries, employed more than 5,000 and ranked third among all of its peers. That same year, Hal reinforced his motto and released a revised book, with the subtitle, “Put Your People First and Watch ‘Em Kick Butt.”

Based on the successes from applying such a strategy, any basic advice from Hal Rosenbluth on managing a service-oriented business—even from working experience in an industry different from our own—would appear to be worth noting. Not surprisingly, Rosenbluth emphasized the importance of recruiting, selecting, hiring, training and keeping the best people for every position in the company. He stressed the very first days in anyone’s employment build a foundation for long-term success. He admitted occasional lapses on his company’s part in failing to maintain their own set of principles, emphasizing how they learned from mistakes, made corrections and put things back on course when necessary. So, there is not much difference in the basics of service in our industry and what Rosenbluth put forth in his book.

The core message in “The Customer Comes Second” remains a very simple proposition: If you treat your people well, they, in turn, will serve your customers well. Sound strange? In an odd way, putting your employees first means putting your customers first, as well (not second, as the title suggests).

This proposition has the most take-home value for electrical contractors focusing on the success of their field service operations. To put it another way, it suggests that electrical contractors—who are dedicated to continually developing service work activity, building a customer base, and enjoying steadily increasing and recurring revenues—must recognize dual perspectives for consideration: their employees’ needs (internally) and their customer’s needs (externally). As employers to their own people and contractors to their customers, service-oriented electrical contractors must think of themselves as impresarios in the delivery of every great service experience. If they can dispatch fully prepared electricians—with everything they require in their tool kits, including the necessary “soft skills,” to serve customers—great service experiences will unfold and roll right into repeat business. It is just that simple.

There is an epilogue to the Rosenbluth story. Not long after the second edition of “The Customer Comes Second” was published and given its due share of fanfare in the media, a game-changing event was announced. In what we should see as (at least partial) confirmation of success from the philosophy expressed in his book, Marcus Rosenbluth’s privately held company was acquired by a larger, publicly traded corporation for an undisclosed sum. Over a century of service-based strategies and leadership can pay off.


MCCOY is assistant professor in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech. Contact him at apmccoy@vt.edu. SARGENT, a 40-year veteran of the electrical contracting business based in Pittsburgh, can be reached at fred@sargent.com.