Satisfied and Engaged Employees Lead to Satisfied Customers
In a recent blog article published by Harvard Business Review, Kenneth Freeman presents the case for focusing on long-term shareholder value through an engaged workforce. He boldly states that the way to approach this goal is to first create employee satisfaction before customer satisfaction.
For many of us who have always been taught that the customer comes first, Freeman’s point seems counterintuitive. In fact, the notion to put employees before the customer reminds me the preflight instructions from airline attendants to “place your own oxygen mask on before helping children or others.” While the natural instinct is to help your kids and others before yourself, flight safety experts want you to help yourself now so that you could be of long-term assistance to others. Hmm.
Freeman uses his own experience as a case study of how he righted a sinking ship. In his situation, his employees’ poor attitudes were putting people’s lives at risk. Not all companies provide life or death services, but the end result could indicate a healthy or fatal bottom line for your business.
What’s your culture forecast: positive sunshine, negative gloom, or apathetic gray?
We’ve all dealt with enough businesses in our lives, whether retail or other, to have experienced the happy and contented employees as well as those comically apathetic and disengaged clock watchers. Both sets of employees likely stem from environments that encourages either behavior – they are both infectious, but one is positive while the other negative.
If you already have a staff of employees with shining, customer service-oriented attitudes, then you’ll not likely hire an obvious malcontent to join your team. If you’re unsure, pre-hire assessments can generally weed out behavioral tendencies that won’t fit your culture. And for businesses whose environment (and therefore its culture) is as gloomy as the Addams’ Family’s, worthy potential employees will decide for themselves not to bother applying.
Those scenarios are pretty clear cut, but there’s a very large gray area in which most companies likely function. Over time, what was once a bright and positive culture can give way to an unintended malaise. As Freeman points out, when leaders detect that their company has fallen victim to this, they need to reengage their employees to escape that funk before it ruins the business.
Many companies, such as Woodmen of the World, conduct internal employee surveys to measure employee attitudes among their staff. But as the executives mention in the video, you have to be willing to follow through on the feedback you receive; if you don't, the survey will be perceived as an empty gesture and attitudes will likely sink lower.
Employee Engagement at Woodmen of the World
Beyond trying to fix obvious issues with working conditions, employees need to be reminded that what they do is important and valued. No matter where they are in your operations, your workforce needs to know how their efforts contribute to the end result. From R&D to manufacturing, marketing and sales, distribution, and customer-facing staff as well as HR, IT, and accounting, each person plays an important role in how your business performs to serve its clients and constituents.
For some functions, this is easier said than done. While telling a back-office employee how she contributes to the success of the company, find a way to help them appreciate how your business serves its buyers and constituents.
For parts of your workforce that aren’t exposed to the critical or customer-facing aspects of what you do, perhaps you should consider periodic job rotations to those critical areas. I recall several years ago when senior executives from AMC Theatres would spend time working alongside their ticket takers, cashiers, and concession clerks to be reminded of what the majority of their staff do, the importance of staying connected to their customers, and looking for new ways to improve their business.
I always respected that initiative and think that it can be applied to any business to engage employees. Think of it as an exchange program where workers trade roles for what could be a few hours or a few days. They will likely come away with more respect for what goes on in other parts of the business and perhaps be reinvigorated in their own work. It can also spark ideas for how they can better contribute to your operations, and they will most likely be thankful for the opportunity that you have created for them.
Freeman walked the halls of his company and could see the demoralized attitudes among his staff. I applaud him for touring his operations and not managing from his corner office as many executives do. It’s important for employees to know that their bosses (all the way to the very top) care enough about the company and their workers to tour the plants, meet the people, and engage in the business rather. It shouldn’t be a fearful or foreboding visit either – just like the annual performance review, there shouldn’t be any surprises when the boss pays a visit. An operation with engaged employees would already be doing what’s necessary and should have nothing to fear. If they do, then something’s wrong.
Include talent management in your long-term plans
A business and its leaders who can’t see beyond the short term will be more tolerant of bad behavior and attitudes. Successful organizations that are in it for the long haul have a long-term goals and a strategy to get there, which includes strategic talent management.
Conventional wisdom dictates that the customer comes first, but I tend to agree with Freeman. If employees are disengaged, unhappy, or malcontent, then they’re unlikely to delight your buyers and encourage them to “come again” for their future purchases. However, fully engaged, motivated, and committed employees will be friendly and outgoing with customers and colleagues and are likely to perform at their best.
Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dacran/2596478381/sizes/z/in/photostream