Who’s Customer #1? Your Employees. Here’s What Leaders Need to Know.

See how empathy is fast becoming every organization’s most critical leadership skill.

Time to read: 7 minutes
Kexin Chen
Senior Director, Integrated Marketing, Salesforce
It’s safe to say leadership climbed a steep learning curve over the past few years — from manning health protocols to stepping in the front seat of social justice — all while simply figuring out how to keep the lights on. But the most unexpected lesson for many? That business viability now centers on a new type of employee experience — one that prioritizes empathy and equity. With 85% of customers saying that a company’s treatment of its employees during 2020’s crises influences their decision to buy from a company, it’s time for CEOs to build on those lessons as we reemerge in a new pandemic era.

"of customers say that a company’s treatment of its employees during 2020’s crises influences their decision to buy from a company. "

Source: State of the Connected Customer,” Salesforce Research, October 2020.
This shift means CEOs need to model behaviors that promote wellbeing, enact flexible work models that meet employee needs, and empower a more inclusive and diverse workforce. Doing so builds a foundation of trust with employees that makes them feel more valued within the company.
What do these evolving employee and customer expectations look like in the new working world? Here are the tools and best practices that can help every CEO blaze a path to the next leadership frontier.

Embed empathy into your organization’s culture.

Business is now the most trusted institution in the world, outpacing government and media, according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer. And the stakes are high to maintain this trust. Empathy plays a critical role. Here are a few ways CEOs can foster a culture of empathy from the top.

Prioritize employee engagement across the organization.

It’s not just HR’s responsibility to nurture employee engagement and wellbeing — it’s everyone’s responsibility. Consider Trailblazers like Southwest, which adopted an employee engagement app that fosters an inclusive, fun work environment and guides workers to achieve their potential.

“We have to know our internal and external customers. We have to be empathetic to their needs and expectations and focus our efforts around them.”

James Ashworth
VP, Customer Service & Support
Southwest Airlines

Champion emotional intelligence (EQ).

Develop important soft skills that build EQ, like learning how to listen to understand instead of listening to respond. Create a nurturing environment where employees build trust with each other — and don’t feel left out. Work hard to understand the value and perspective of every team member and realize how their contributions drive organizational objectives across every level and department.

Don’t just say you’re authentic. Be authentic.

CEOs got personal in 2020 and began to think of ways they could support employees in the ways they needed, like instituting company wide limits on video calls, offering financial support, and enforcing enhanced health and safety guidelines. For Otis, a large company that employs a globally distributed workforce that largely can’t work from home, keeping workers safe during the pandemic was essential. To build employee trust, Otis prioritized investment in emotional support tools and personal protective equipment, a strategy that paid dividends in employee experience.

Get ahead of burnout.

The sudden shift to remote work, school disruptions, and layoffs led to 52% of employees reporting signs of burnout. To combat fatigue, create guidelines that limit the amount of time employees spend on digital tools. For example, many organizations have added Thrive Global’s Reset app to their team communication platforms (like Zoom) to help employees manage stress, stay balanced, and remain focused and productive.

Embrace the gift of feedback (and put it to work).

Don’t assume that because you love your business your employees feel the same. Survey your employees, like Shaw Industries did, to find concrete ways to improve the employee experience. At Shaw, leaders assessed feedback from the sales and marketing teams about ways they could streamline cumbersome processes and meet ambitious revenue goals at the same time. The changes they made reduced turnover from 14% to 9%.

Staff turnover rate fell from 14% to 9%.

Use empathy as a building block to equity.

When leaders at the highest levels show empathy, it permeates the organization. It becomes a standard that all managers abide by and trickles down all the way to the most junior-level employee.

When leaders at the highest levels show empathy, it permeates the organization.

But the buck doesn’t stop at wellness and wellbeing. Leaders also need to think about how to be empathetic and elevate all voices in the organization. The foundations of an equitable workforce are rooted in inclusivity and trust.

“of customers expect companies to clearly demonstrate their values.”

Source: State of the Connected Customer,” Salesforce Research, October 2020.

Part of that is understanding that talking about diversity and inclusion (D&I) isn’t enough. Neither is attracting a diverse pipeline — it’s about what you do next. For employees and customers, this cliché rings true: Actions speak louder than words. Leaders can’t make meaningful change without truly looking inward and also listening to the diverse perspectives within the organization. If there aren’t enough diverse perspectives, it’s a matter of making a commitment to change that — and sticking to it.

Take concrete steps that make D&I efforts alive and meaningful. Help middle managers by creating safe spaces for them to say “I don’t know how to handle this.” It’s not a one-and-done training video; it’s making a concerted effort to schedule regular times in which they can get candid answers to difficult questions.

For example, if a middle manager is facing a buy-versus-build decision and the “buy” option is an up-and-coming minority-owned business (but the internal build option is cheaper), work together to chart a path forward.

Another aspect of an equitable workforce is understanding an employee’s net disposable income (NDI). At PayPal, leadership realized that their employees barely earned enough to cover basic expenses and were likely to be disengaged at work. They calculated their employees’ NDI and built a mechanism to help them live better lives. They raised salaries, cut benefits contributions, and awarded company equity to their employees. The bottom line: When your employees worry less about money, they’ll bring their best selves to work.

Use tech to enable workplace transformation.

Technology can help leaders evolve their organizations with both empathy and equity in mind. It takes investing in technology that enables better transparency and collaboration so that teams can come together no matter where they work.

Consider these strategies.

Encourage liquid talent.

Think beyond the constraints of your org chart and invest in training based on skills and experience. This type of structure gives employees more fluidity to move across roles and responsibilities. For example, you can upskill a customer service employee with training on inventory or marketing systems. The key is to give them the tools and training that help them grow their careers. For example, Salesforce’s digital learning platform, Trailhead, uses gamification to teach employees different skills in a fun and engaging way.

“In many ways, corporations are becoming the universities of the future.”

Andy Bird

Make it easier for employees to do their jobs.

Seventy percent of executives agree that a better employee experience leads to a better customer experience. That grows revenue, but bad technology and disparate systems hurt the employee experience.

of executives agree that a better employee experience leads to a better customer experience, and that grows revenue.

Consider the case of a customer service agent handling a complex customer request. Seventy-nine percent of service professionals say it’s impossible to serve customers without a complete view of their interactions, yet many still need to toggle between different technology systems and rely on manual workflows. This poor experience for the agent not only decreases employee satisfaction; it extends to the customer, who is stuck waiting longer than they want for an answer to their problem — or worse, they may be passed off to a different department altogether. That puts customer loyalty at stake.

Transform your customer service experience with Salesforce Service Cloud.

A customer relationship management (CRM) platform gives employees access to centralized customer data and insights. Automation kicks in to guide agents with the right workflows, and artificial intelligence (AI) analyzes case data to recommend next best actions.

Are you ready for the next frontier in leadership?

In 2020, everything about the way we live, work, and interact with others changed — possibly forever. Business leaders have a chance to use their most-trusted status by reimagining business and creating the culture at work that they wish to see in the world. But to succeed, CEOs must realize that meaningful and lasting workplace transformation begins and ends with empathetic leadership. With the right strategies and digital tools, organizations can build excellent employee experiences that cultivate wellbeing, enhance productivity, and nurture careers.

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