Don’t lose the human element

There's a popular delusion among some business leaders that profitable business and human values are in opposition to each other.

Don’t lose the human element

It’s not true, as anyone in the health and social care sector will tell you – and all businesses and franchises, in whatever sector, would do well to realise this.

The human element in many businesses is almost unrecognised. It’s the role played by people in the business, either as customers or staff. It’s widely seen as secondary to ‘harder’ business elements such as finance and production, and commonly hived off to HR, which is often secretly seen as a ‘soft’ discipline. While vast amounts of leadership advice is devoted to how to drive the business machine, much less is concerned with the human element.

Yet the human element is vital to business success in any sector. 

Lessons from the general store

I first learnt the value of human-centred business when I was a kid. My mum and dad kept a shop selling all kinds of things, from kitchenware to clothing. It was a small business, and we knew that sales resulted from pleasing customers, so maintaining successful human relationships was vital. 

After I left university, I transformed an Italian deli in Richmond, Surrey into an Italian restaurant and then developed a successful local cafe. Both won awards. I knew that the human element was vital to success. It’s not called hospitality for nothing: success in this sector is about being hospitable. Without that attitude, customers and staff go elsewhere.

Small is (more) human

Small businesses know the importance of the human element, because the owners, staff and customers are likely to be part of the same local community.

However, once businesses get so big that the majority of the staff are no longer in direct contact with customers the human element can disappear. When this happens the focus can be on processing orders, or forwarding information, or adding up the money. When transactions become the focus of a business, the human element can be forgotten.

Head office staff, managers and company directors can be miles away, both in social and literal terms, from their customers and staff. No matter how skilfully a business is run financially, without the link to customers and staff the health and reputation of the business suffers. 

Staff are human too

Staff are a vital part of the human element of a company. They are the most important link between the company and its customers – especially those staff on the front line, who deliver the services. Neglect these people at your peril. 

Treat staff as human beings, not tools for the development of the company. It pays off in better morale, better customer service, better staff retention and easier recruitment.

What can leaders do?

Leaders must make the needs of customers and staff intrinsic to the whole business culture and demonstrate their own commitment to the idea. They must ensure that customer and staff views are always taken into account, and decisions must consider the effect on customers – regardless of their business sector. Even in the business-to-business sector humans are part of the whole process – and often the ultimate customer.  

Franchise leaders have an advantage

This is all easier for franchise leaders than those in non-franchised organisations. Many franchises are, in effect, a network of small businesses. Franchisees, and their staff come to know their customers well – they may even know them personally as members of their local communities.  

On the other hand, non-franchised companies are much more likely to be led by ‘them up there’ in head office, who are trying to address some notional ‘customer’ dreamed up by a marketing department in a distant head office. 

The localised franchise model makes it easier for leaders to take advantage of genuine customer knowledge to succeed – but only if they prioritise the human element in their business.

Amrit Dhaliwal
Amrit Dhaliwal