There is a lot of focus on employee engagement and experience these days. And with good reason, customer-centric culture is the backbone of good customer experience. Richard Branson famously said “If you look after your staff well, they will look after your customers. Simple.” He was right, of course, and Virgin is a shining example of a brand that has successfully differentiated its offering based on customer experience.
Branson spent his career building organizations around this mantra, so it might be unrealistic to transform your employee experience overnight, but you can follow in his footsteps. This starts with engaging and empowering employees, and there are actions that all organizations can take to make the shift.
Let employees be the change they want to see
Often front-line teams have an excellent pulse on the customer’s wants and needs. Yes, it’s important to regularly gather customer feedback through research and customer listening, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t also listen to the voice of the employee. These insights can be just as useful to drive ongoing improvements to the customer journey. What’s more is that this is also a way to engage and employees and improve service.
When employees know they have a say in the evolution of customer experience, they will take more ownership of their individual contributions. For customer-facing teams, this means accountability for customer service and outcomes.
In practice, gathering feedback can be as simple as an employee suggestion box or a monthly team brainstorming session. Don’t underestimate the power of this. Some pretty ground-breaking ideas, such as Amazon Prime, have come from similar humble suggestion box beginnings. The key is to acknowledge the feedback and set up a process for actioning prioritized suggestions. If employees don’t see that their feedback is being authentically taken onboard, it won’t work to empower teams.
Put employees on an equal footing with customers
Being a customer-facing team member is hard work, and the old adage of “the customer is always right,” does little to empower employees. Under this philosophy, the employee is considered secondary to the customer, which might create scenarios where employees feel belittled. It is not a stretch to imagine how an employee who feels disempowered would be less inclined to provide great customer service.
Many brands, even prestigious brands in the service sector, are turning this customer-is-always-right concept on its head and positioning employees on equal footing with the customer. This is where we must carefully differentiate between the idea of being in service of someone, versus providing a service to someone. The latter empowers the service provider, whereas the former does just the opposite.
The Ritz Carlton, a brand renowned for its service culture, has successfully done this. They state their service motto as “ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” This philosophy, which permeates their employee engagement from hiring to performance management, acknowledges the honor and dignity in service while empowering employees to provide great service to their customers, as equals.
Let employees make the call
Policies and procedures should serve to support teams and uphold brand standards, but there will always be scenarios that fall outside of the standard playbook. When employees are faced with a difficult situation without a clear answer, empower them to use their judgment and take ownership of the decision.
It might be challenging for business leaders to give up control, but if you hire, train and manage teams around a cohesive service strategy, and support employees with clear guidelines and expectations, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about. Will there be mistakes? Of course, but these wouldn’t necessarily go away if teams had to run everything up the chain of command for approval.
When employees are empowered to make decisions, it creates a direct line of accountability to customer outcomes, which should mean that employees are addressing each situation with a service mindset. Multichoice, Africa’s largest satellite TV and media entertainment provider, launched an internal customer experience improvement campaign called #99 problems. This campaign invited all employees to contribute to fixing the top 99 pain points along the customer journey. When I interviewed Clint Payne, the Senior Manager of Customer Experience at Multichoice, he said that employees are also consumers, and as a leader he needs to “think about how we can get out of the way and help facilitate the delivery of better experiences. Employees already know what to do. The key is enablement.”
Multichoice’s campaign was no small undertaking, but this type of empowerment can start at a smaller scale. Team leaders can implement policies that allow employees to make decisions about what to do when things run off the normal script. Just remember to provide clear guidelines and to support the employee’s decision. If things go wrong, it can provide an opportunity for gentle coaching, but if employees are worried that their decisions will be scrutinized, this won’t work.
Encourage employee self-care
Richard Branson emphasizes the importance of looking after employees, but there are limitations to what an employer can do. Organizations should also encourage team members to advocate for and look after their own needs. Employee wellbeing programs, self-determined paid leave and flexible working hours are all the result of organizations deciding to put employees in the driver’s seat of their employee experience. This is the next step in ensuring that employees feel valued and cared for. Gallup reported in the 2017 “The State of the American Workplace” that employees who are engaged are more likely to improve customer relationships, with a resulting 20% increase in sales.
For front line staff, organizations should proactively encourage self-care that addresses the specific challenges of being at the coal face of customer experience. Customer service can be taxing even when things are running smoothly. Add an angry customer or a service delivery hiccup into the mix, and it’s no wonder that burnout is often higher among front line staff. Organizations should pay special attention to the self-care needs of these teams and empower employees to take control of their wellbeing. It’s easier to look after the needs of customers if you feel relaxed, confident and supported. The practicalities of this will vary from situation to situation, but perhaps it means providing a channel for an employee to vent after a difficult interaction with a customer or enabling team members to take a break to get re-centered if needed.
Support teams with the right systems and tech
So many customer experiences are automated these days. Apps, chatbots, IVRs, you name it, customers are well-equipped to do things on their own and be their own first line of defense when an issue comes up. That means that when customers do opt for an in-person experience, it’s because they need assistance with something complex, are looking for expertise, or are simply seeking the element of human connection. Teams need to be geared up to rise to the occasion and make the most out of these experiences.
The same automation and digital innovation that has revolutionized most customer journeys can also be harnessed to help teams be prepared to deliver great customer service. Nordstrom has been on the forefront of retail innovation. This extends not only to what the customer sees, but also how the organization has invested in capabilities to empower teams. In 2018 the retailer acquired Bevyup, a start up with platform enabling sales associates to communicate with each other on the backend and to extend outreach to customers through such things as style boards. At the time of acquisition, Nordstrom planned to incorporate Bevyup into a new Nordstrom employee app supporting the needs of their sales associates and other front-line teams.
This is just one example of how innovative brands are empowering teams with the right systems and platforms, so these teams can focus on delivering meaningful and engaging customer service. When investing in tech-based solutions, leaders should evaluate if there are opportunities to streamline processes or proactively feed information to customer-facing staff so they can be prepared and empowered.
None of these suggestions are quick fixes, but they do begin to catalyze change by supporting teams to focus on what’s important, fostering accountability and deepening employee engagement. These interventions will be most effective in environments where leaders have laid the foundation with a clear customer-centric purpose and vision. All will require time and leadership dedication, but if organizations act on opportunities to support and empower employees, this will in turn translate into better service experiences.