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Engaging Your People in Improvement Activity: 6 Key Questions 

Ian Golding, CCXP | Feb 16, 2017 911 views 1 Comment

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In this, my exclusive column for CustomerThink, I continue to explore in detail my perspective on seven ‘tips’ that will enable any organisation to become genuinely customer centric. It is important to stress that the ‘tips’ are in no particular order – tip number four is no less important than tip number one – although all the tips are connected to each other in some way. Last month I wrote about the importance of experiencing what it FEELS like to be a customer AND an employee. As I now move on to tip number four, the connection between the tips becomes clear.

“Too many organisations try and ‘DO’ things to their people. When it comes to influencing your people to change the way they behave, make them part of the change that needs to be made, rather than just doing it to them.”

One of the greatest challenges for any organisation is to create an environment where its people feel as though they can influence and make change happen. The word ‘empowerment’ is often chided, but in the context of creating a customer centric culture, it is a necessary ingredient for success. Empowering people to question; challenge; push back; make suggestions; innovate; create; not ask for permission; is not something commonly seen in businesses around the world.

Many companies have ‘dipped their toe in the water’ when it comes to engaging their people in improving their business through the concept of ‘employee or staff suggestion schemes’. Actively encouraging staff to share ways the business could be improved is not a new principle – yet it is not often that we hear stories that bring to life the positive and continuous effect these schemes have had on transforming the customer experience and/or business performance. Too often, employee suggestion schemes are considered insincere and done ‘for the sake of it’. Interestingly, for a scheme to be sincere and have a demonstrable effect on the people it is aimed at, the culture of the organisation must be in a place where it genuinely puts employees and customers at the centre of everything it does.



I was extremely fortunate to spend several years early on in my career at General Electric (GE). A business led for many years by Jack Welch, GE serves as a brilliant example of how to effectively engage people in driving real, tangible improvement to both customer experience and business performance. One way they have demonstrated this is through a process improvement methodology known as ‘Workout’.

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A methodology conceived by GE, Workout is a structured, systematic way to bring people together to develop rapid, lasting improvements in process performance that benefit both customer and business. The improvements are typically implemented in 90 to 120 days. As one of the greatest examples of the power of engaging people in improvement activity, Jack Welch was once quoted as saying:

“Trust the people in the organization – the people in the best position to improve a business are the people in the job every day.”

These words are so powerful, yet they sound so obvious! Yet despite this, so few leaders in businesses have the foresight or courage (or both) to do it.

I spent seven years leading Customer Experience for an online retailer. In the mid noughties, a very small number of employees interacted with our brands and were rarely actively encouraged to either say what they thought about the customer experience, or speak up about how things could be improved. Failure to engage our people in the Customer Experience meant that we were failing to leverage or benefit from their knowledge, desire and passion for the business.

As a result, a methodology that became known as ‘Customer First Aid’ was born. We believed that if we could engage all our employees – 10,000 at the time – in having the ability to actually do something when they identified an issue that was detrimental to the customer experience, not only would it positively benefit the customer, but it would also have a galvanising effect on our people. It absolutely did.

As soon as Customer First Aid was launched, employees from around the business embraced it. Comments like, “it’s about time the business listened to us”, were soon followed by, “It is brilliant to be able to make a positive difference”. Employees efforts in improving the Customer Experience started to be recognised by leadership in all functions. By 2010, Customer First Aid had even received national recognition in the form of a UK Customer Experience Award. Every year, the programme was also delivering a positive financial benefit to the organisation – on average £2 to 3 million – by addressing many small issues that would never have made it on to the radar of big project activity.

I have seen first-hand the immense power of engaging people in improvement activity. Jack Welch was absolutely right – the people in the best position to improve a business are the people in the job every day – unlocking the power of your people will deliver huge benefit to any business.

If you want to engage your people in improvement activity, ask yourself the following six questions:

  1. Do your people know that Customer Experience is a priority for everyone in the business?
  2. Do your people know that they are positively encourage to identify ways to improve the Customer Experience?
  3. Do your people know how they can get involved in improving the Customer Experience or who to speak to about ideas they have?
  4. Do or have your people experienced the customer journey for themselves?
  5. Are your people given the time to THINK about how they could influence improving the Customer Experience?
  6. Has your business allocated resource and budget to act on your employees’ ideas for improving the Customer Experience?

Getting this right is not easy – it requires sincerity, commitment and LEADERSHIP. Yet if you can effectively create an environment where EVERYONE in the organisation understands they can play a role in improving the Customer Experience, your goal of customer centric transformation will be all the more achievable!

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One Response to Engaging Your People in Improvement Activity: 6 Key Questions

  1. Andrew Rudin February 16, 2017 at 4:26 pm (191 comments) #

    I think Jack Welch is a great guy, and he is unquestionably successful. But his idea that “the people in the best position to improve a business are the people in the job every day” makes good presentation material, but I wouldn’t bank on it as a panacea. His idea assumes that employees are chomping at the bit to fix things, and continually strive for greater efficiency and effectiveness. In my experience, that’s a shaky assumption.

    Julia Galef, the president of the Center for Applied Rationality, described a countervailing condition more familiar to me called “the commitment effect,” described as “the condition of sticking with something “long after it has become quite clear that it’s not doing anything for us” or is even hurtful. We do this because we have an irrational commitment to things we’ve been doing for a while and don’t like the idea that our investment in that thing has been a waste.” (see http://bigthink.com/big-think-tv/rationality-in-action-look-at-a-problem-as-an-outsider)

    Yeaaaaahhhh! People don’t like change! I’ve heard it more times than I can count. So no, I’m not sanguine on expecting people who perform a job day-in and day-out to become innovation gurus. I think processes are almost always helped by outsiders able to look at a problem with fresh eyes, and ask, “why are you doing it that way . . . ?”

    Still, I believe there are limits to that approach, too. We have a new president whose appeal was based in large measure for his iconoclastic views, and his proposal to “run government like a business.” . . . Don’t get me started!

    On a separate, but related note: it strikes me as odd to see “customer experience” without any modifiers such as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – as I often do. Where this gets especially confusion is in your first question, “Do your people know that Customer Experience is a priority for everyone in the business?” If I’m a new customer service employee for an online retailer, what do I make of this question, when, in my mind, any experience a customer has in the role of customer is an experience! My point is that as customer service practitioners, we think we’re inferring that the objective of CX is something positive, excellent, outstanding, differentiating, loyalty-producing, and value-creating. But what we’re serving up by just calling it “Customer Experience” is semantic mush. When I encounter this issue with my clients, I begin by unpacking what CX is, and then emphasizing that CX is nothing more than a thing that ranges from worse than horrible to nirvana.

    Looking at this through the eyes of someone new to the role of customer service representative, I can see where “CX” would be challenging to interpret and implement into a set of behaviors needed to perform the job.

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