From iconic retail magnate Harry Gordon Selfridge coining the phrase “The customer is always right” way back in 1909, to scripted phone surveys in the 1980s and ’90s, to the rise of powerful CRM software – the importance of the customer experience has remained a bedrock principle in business, even as the tools we use to optimize that experience have evolved. We devote innumerable resources – financial and otherwise – to customer experience. But employee engagement, including asking for their feedback and assessing their value, has been an afterthought.
Yet research shows that the factor most directly linked to creating a positive customer experience is actually our own employees. In other words, the fastest way to get customers to love your brand is to get employees to love their jobs.
Research shows that the factor most directly linked to creating a positive customer experience is actually our own employees. The fastest way to get customers to love your brand is to get employees to love their jobs.
The fact that voluntary turnover alone costs businesses a whole trillion dollars a year in the United States, according to research by Gallup, is reason alone to move employee experience (EX) from a luxury to an imperative. But that’s only the beginning.
When you say your customers are deeply engaged with your brand, what – or who – are they actually connecting with? When they call with a service question or consider a purchase, customers are not interacting with an omniscient, faceless brand: They are in direct contact with the very people whose attitudes, competence, and sense of empowerment combine to give that brand its substance and soul.
Over the past year, as companies have begun to reckon with social injustices, structural inequality, and the physical and mental well-being of their employees, those very same employees have begun to demand more from their leadership.
They now have a platform to call out our inconsistencies – sometimes publicly on social media, sometimes anonymously on websites like Glassdoor and Indeed. The result has been a subtle shift in power. If our internal practices are not consistent and ethical, our customers will soon hear about it from the employees who experience them every day.
“It used to be a world where organizations had much more information about themselves than people outside of the organization. Well, that’s not true anymore,” said Michael Stephan, principal and U.S. Human Capital Leader with Deloitte Consulting. “Organizations now realize that how they behave and how they respond to their workforce will ultimately influence the organization’s brand externally. It will also impact how they meet customer needs, as well as their ability to attract, hire, and retain talent.”
That’s the realization that motivated Jacalyn Chapman, senior director for employee advocacy and belonging at Salesforce, to lead Warmline, an advocacy program for women, Black, indigenous, and Latinx employees. Warmline is a resource that allows these employees to connect with an advocate at the company and discuss how to navigate a predominantly white work culture and seek out opportunities for inclusion.
When customers call with a service question or consider a purchase, they’re not interacting with an omniscient, faceless brand. They are in direct contact with the very people whose attitudes, competence, and sense of empowerment combine to give that brand its substance and soul.
Earlier this year, Chapman’s team used a speed-dating format of 10-minute interviews to connect Warmline callers with other divisions at Salesforce. Ten percent of participants got new jobs within the company, on teams they would not otherwise have crossed paths with – especially in a remote environment.
The benefits of an employee-first culture are cumulative and exponential. It’s not just about saving money and time on churn. It’s about turning every part of your company, from the call center to the C-suite, into a brand embassy and profit generator. Surveys across the industry bear this out. Gallup, for example, found that “the behaviors of highly engaged business units result in 21% greater profitability.”
“In this world, the people who interface between your organization and the customer are the single most important people. What they hear from the customer is the best intelligence that your organization has,” said Simon Mulcahy, chief innovation officer at Salesforce. “And yet, if they’re existing in a world where they’re only told what to do, they don’t have any power to share what they heard, and you’ve lost a massive opportunity.”
When Harry Gordon Selfridge put customers first, he did so at the expense of the employees in his department stores. Information, like orders, flowed in one direction: downhill. In 2021, the companies that best serve their customers do so by not only claiming to value their employees, but also listening to them.
Plot the path to employee engagement
We have made it a best practice to understand our customers: surveying their feelings, monitoring their touchpoints, anticipating their every need. But if we are to truly understand them, we must understand our employees with the same level of detail.
And research shows that this is what separates companies who merely talk about culture from those who actually live it. During the coronavirus pandemic, Slack conducted a massive survey of more than 17,000 global workers. The resulting data led the company to develop a new way of thinking about employee experience. Instead of stopping at engagement, or even happiness, it went so far as to introduce the lens of alignment. Slack found that workers who feel aligned with their company’s strategy are twice as likely to rate their company highly for collaboration, communication, productivity, and overall workplace culture. They are also much more likely to understand how their day-to-day work contributes to their company.
Aligned workers are not just content – they have purpose. They can see how their personal goals help the company move forward. The Slack study writers put it this way: “Organizations can nurture alignment through a clear strategy, frequent communication of that strategy, and a thoughtful approach to information overload.”
If our internal practices are not consistent and ethical, our customers will soon hear about it from the employees who experience them every day.
This kind of purposeful communication is exactly what has allowed Southwest Airlines to create a culture known for collaboration and positive employee engagement. Executives at the airline aggressively seek out employee feedback through roundtables and surveys. “If you’re smart, you’re documenting that feedback, exploring it, prioritizing it, and making employees a part of your innovation pipeline,” said James Ashworth, the company’s vice president for support and services.
Employees there not only know they are on the front lines, but also that their feedback informs the strategic direction the company takes. In all companies, failure to cultivate that dialogue creates chasms between employees and leadership, leaving teams uninspired to meet your organization’s loftier goals.
“We don’t know our talent in the way that we need to, and that creates gaps,” Chapman said. “It’s not just about the numbers and making sure teams understand the business. It’s a real focus on the people themselves and helping them feel valued, which will have a direct impact on how the work is done.”
Make sure employee engagement actually happens
How do you create a company for which employee experience is not just some static buzzword but a living, breathing part of how things are done? Here are three very simple action items that can help:
- Ask: Gather data about employee happiness. Ask them what’s working and what’s not working, instituting a culture of listening and engaging in surveys and data collection initiatives. For instance, Southwest Airlines has two teams of frontline employees dedicated to not only gathering feedback but also responding to it. At the very least, employees know they were heard.
- Assess: Develop a process for key decision-makers to easily access employee feedback, and create a space for them to brainstorm ways to incorporate that feedback into workplace processes. For example, do the things employees say about a piece of software match up with the metrics of how they’re using it? Demonstrate to employees that they are being heard by making their feedback easy to find.
- Act: Make tangible changes to workflows, technology, and systems that take employee feedback into account. Then clearly communicate those changes back to employees. It’s not enough to simply ask for feedback. We must also acknowledge that we heard it, and explain how and why we are acting on it – or not acting on it, as the case may be.
Finding alignment when we’re all remote
The past year has amplified the challenges inherent to building aligned teams – especially in a distributed workforce. The pandemic revealed the friction that company silos create, and it laid bare the mental and health burdens of workers.
But it also demonstrated that resilient companies and aligned workers can do incredible things – and do them remarkably quickly. Jill Unikel leads employee communication and engagement at Salesforce. Lately, she has been thinking about how her role has evolved in the months following the first stay-at-home orders. She identified four key areas that have become significantly more important in the past year.
- Transparency: Leadership must be more visible and more intentional in making sure that workers have a clear sense of what’s really happening in the company.
- Technology: Work should be intuitive. Technology should be a tool that is helping us and connecting us – not an obstacle to productivity, or a distraction.
- Flexibility: The days of the Monday-Friday, 9-to-5 are over. How can we rethink work to better fit the lives of our employees and the demands of the company?
- Personalization: Each employee has different skills and different needs. How can we optimize each worker’s experience?
Company culture needs to evolve such that people can collaborate and feel part of something bigger than themselves, despite the lack of physical connection.
Southwest adapted to the change by implementing virtual town halls, conducting extensive employee surveys, and building out the technological tools to support workplace culture. The company has developed proprietary apps to track individual employee engagement, as well as another layer of apps to track how different regions are managing, reporting on, and understanding that engagement.
Organizations now realize that how they behave and how they respond to their workforce will ultimately influence the organization’s brand externally. It will also impact how they meet customer needs, as well as their ability to attract, hire, and retain talent.Michael Stephan, principal and U.S. Human Capital Leader, Deloitte Consulting
But most companies have not been as swift to embrace – or act on – their employees’ feedback. In Deloitte’s 2021 Global Human Capital Report, a whopping 97% of organizations said they needed higher degrees of workforce sentiment data to act on feedback.
“The good news is that there’s a recognition that they need it,” said Deloitte’s Stephan. “But there’s a challenge that they don’t have enough of it. And so I think it’s about how you move quickly to develop a stronger set of data and insights to really understand the needs of your workforce.”
Welcome team members to the invisible office
An employee’s feeling of belonging and purpose at a company begins on day one with training. The onboarding process forces companies to really think about and define their values in specific language.
In the case of Southwest, this happens through – you guessed it – a proprietary onboarding app. Airline workers are inherently dispersed, working in airports and terminals across the nation. But the app, called SWA U, feels like Southwest, right down to the colors and fonts SWA U serves as a doorway into company culture.
“Onboarding people virtually means it’s as critical to build an agenda of who people will meet as it is to build a training curriculum of what they will get to know,” said Karen Mangia, vice president of customer and marketing insights at Salesforce.
The people who interface between your organization and the customer are the single most important people. What they hear from the customer is the best intelligence that your organization has.Simon Mulcahy, chief innovation officer, Salesforce
Virtual onboarding is also a great way for companies to bake in processes for employee feedback. Frequent check-ins from new employees are a great way to engage those employees and are a chance for the company to learn about its own processes from new voices. It is, said Mangia, a “remarkable opportunity to really rapidly innovate and make some of those incremental changes very quickly.”
Employee engagement is about listening carefully
Making those changes is ultimately how we prove to employees that we are listening to them – that they are valued. It’s not Harry Gordon Selfridge demanding that his workers bend over backward for the customer, but those very employees helping Selfridge remake the store based on what they are hearing on the sales floor. Information is flowing freely, not just downward.
No matter how small or large, once a company has done the work to build an aligned workforce, it can start to tell the story it wants to tell about itself and its own brand. It can begin to not only reduce churn but attract great talent; to not only create an engaged internal culture but see the way that culture ripples out toward customers.
“Organizations are realizing the inextricable link between workforce experience and customer experience,” said Stephan. “The stronger the alignment between these elements, the stronger the outcomes for the organization, its workforce, and its customers.”
The evidence is clear. We’ve moved beyond Selfridge’s adage of “The customer is always right.” The future of revenue generation and growth begins internally with aligned, engaged employees.