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For Employees and Customers, Should the Goal Be Higher Engagement or Higher Experience Value? 

Michael Lowenstein, PhD, CMC | Aug 26, 2016 1,365 views 5 Comments

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Several years ago, in worldwide customer service experience research conducted for a major high-tech client, to drive stronger downstream customer behavior, it was found that processes and customer interaction had to take service employees well beyond the basics of knowledge, efficiency, and friendliness. Consistently, and irrespective of continent or country, the most effective reps showed true empathy for the customer’s issue, literally “owning” the issue as if it were theirs as well, walking in their shoes. and making a true emotional connection.

What wasn’t so completely understood at the time is that that this level of employee commitment and personal investment also positively impacted the employee experience. This was something of an epiphany for our client, representing an unanticipated ‘bonus’ result.

Customer experience pros can argue back-and-forth about whether a vendor can create deep emotions such as bonding and love in a customer. There are lots of articles and studies around stating things like “Highly engaged customers are loyal customers”. There’s little doubt that engaged customers can, and do, help shape the brand. They can also provide useful feedback and build brand-based communities. Today, is that enough?



From my perspective, at least, experiences that drive customers’ emotional brand trust and bonding can be both shaped and sustained. That’s largely a function of organizational culture, customer-focused processes – – and the direct and indirect contribution of employees through ambassadorship behavior.

On the employee side of the equation, ambassadorship builds both passion and partnership, enhancing the customer experience. And, as importantly, it also enhances the employee experience, something HCM and HR execs are just coming to realize and leverage.

There have been a number of professional and academic studies, in multiple industries, linking employee attitudes and behaviors with the value customers perceive in their experiences.. Through targeted research, and resultant training, communication, process, and reward and recognition programs, what we define as ambassadorship formalizes the direction in which employee engagement has been trending toward for years. Simply, the trend is optimizing and connecting employee commitment to the organization and its goals, to the company’s unique value proposition, and to the customer. This creates a state where all employees are focused on, and tasked with, delivering customer value as part of their job description, irrespective of location, function or level.

In other words, though there needs to be coordination and management of initiatives through HR and a CXO/CCO, everyone in the company, from the file clerk to the CEO, has this day-to-day responsibility embedded within their job descriptions..

This raises a classic chicken-and-egg question: Does focusing on the employee, and the emotions inherent to creating and sustaining a positive employee experience, generate as much benefit for the organization as enhancing the customer experience? There is ongoing debate about which should be the priority. Several entire books, in fact, have been written on this subject (such as The Customer Comes Second by Hal Rosenbluth and Diane Peters, and Firms of Endearment by Sheth, Sisodia, and Wolfe). There is general agreement that both developing employee ambassadors and customer advocates should receive high priority and emphasis if an enterprise is going to be successful. What building ambassadorship does mandate, however, is that having employees focus on the customer will definitely drive more positive experiences and stronger loyalty behavior for both stakeholder groups.

A recent article by a major employee research and engagement consulting organization were reported on results of their national workforce tracking poll, the highlight of which was that employee engagement had risen 1.2% between January and February, 2015 (to 32.9%) and that this new level was the highest engagement rate reported in the past three years.

The consulting organization went on to conclude from these findings that “Recent trends suggest that improvements in engagement coincide with improvement in unemployment and underemployment,” with the bottom line statement that

“A decline in the percentage of unemployed and underemployed Americans may have some influence on the percentage of engaged workers. As the job market for skilled employees becomes more competitive, it is possible that companies are putting more effort into engaging their current workers.”

At best, this conclusion feels like a major s-t-r-e-t-c-h of correlation analysis results.

This same organization believes that “Employee engagement is a leading indicator of future business success….”; and, to the degree that engagement level can impact staff turnover and productivity, both key contributors to profitability, this is a fair statement. However, when this organization, and others in the employee engagement research, training and consultation space, makes claims that engagement, in and of itself, contributes to customer value and loyalty behavior, two important questions need to be asked. Those question are: 1) Really? and, 2) Where’s the consistent proof for individual companies?

Whenever encountering white papers that conflate the connection between employee engagement and happy customers, the above questions need to be asked. Further, there is no specific connection to the emotional drivers of employee experience. Emotions, understood on an accepted negative to positive hierarchy (see below), are critical to understanding experience and behavior

Source: Beyond Philosophy

Source: Beyond Philosophy

Just as satisfaction has little proven connection to customer behavior, employee engagement was not specifically designed to drive customer behavior nor was it designed to enhance the employee’s experience. To build on this statement, let’s begin by looking at the results of satisfaction on downstream customer action. Beyond extremely macro connection to sales, customer satisfaction (as expressed through the ACSI) has been shown to have little direct connection to purchase behavior, to the tune of 0.0% to 0.1% correlation. Many companies are still measuring customer sat in hopes that learning about its drivers will help build customer loyalty behavior, but satisfaction isn’t contemporary regarding longitudinal experience, decision-making, or reflective of what is going on in the customer’s real, emotional world.

As discussed on multiple occasions, and as proven in our own research ‘employee engagement’ has many meanings and interpretations, but relatively little of it has to do, at least by conceptual definition, specifically with impact on customer behavior. Typically, there is little or no mention/inclusion of ‘customer’ or ‘customer focus’ elements either in measurement or analysis of employee engagement. Though there is proof that customer experience, and resultant behavior, is impacted by engagement, it is more tangential and inferential than purposeful in nature.

A 2015 Advertising Age blog by a leading marketing research consulting organization encapsulated employee ambassadorship very well: Ambassadorship should be an enterprise-wide mantra for every organization: “All employees need to embody the intended customer experience . A narrative must be cascaded down to every single individual in the organization. Your employees must clearly understand their role in delivering the promise the narrative makes to the end customer. This requires multiple conversations and socialization across all business divisions and at every level, not just for customer support roles” To that quote, I say Amen.

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5 Responses to For Employees and Customers, Should the Goal Be Higher Engagement or Higher Experience Value?

  1. Bill Fotsch August 27, 2016 at 7:56 am (12 comments) #

    I appreciate the author’s comments about the importance of employee and customer loyalty/engagement. Seems to me that the route to success is a bit more straight forward that this article suggests. Empower employee to think and act like owners. Customer and employee engagement will flow like water from a river.
    The author correctly asks, where is the proof? Having worked for 400+ companies over 23 years, there is a lot of truth. Companies like Southwest Airlines, Capital One and BHP Billiton, (clients of mine), treat their employees like trusted business partners, enabling them to make more money for their company and themselves. Profits and engagement soar. These Forbes and HBR articles provides more background: http://www.forbes.com/sites/fotschcase/2016/05/31/engage-your-employees-in-making-money/; https://hbr.org/2015/12/treat-employees-like-business-owners
    Minneapolis based Carlson Travel is a great example, as can be seen in their 3 minute call center video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RJAEHPOxPQ

  2. Michael Lowenstein August 27, 2016 at 10:13 am (1326 comments) #

    I appreciate Bill’s comments and observations. For everyone – and I mean EVERYONE – who thinks that employee (or customer) engagement is a be-all and end-all goal, recognize that very, very few organizations consistently treat their employees as business partners, enabling and empowering them to deliver value to each other, the company, and customers. This is real-world ambassadorship, a state beyond engagement, where both employee and customer experience are emphasized..

    Ambassadorship is evolutionary/ It takes work, energy, discipline, commitment, and a willingness to go outside the dots. To paraphrase Tom Hanks as the manager in ‘A League Of Their Own”: “‘It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The ‘hard’ is what makes it great.”

    There is a good deal of support for focusing on experience and ambassadorship, including Ultimate Software, which has had a strong ‘People First’ mantra from its inception. Here’s one core precept behind employee ambassadorship, and it comes from two seminal books (The Customer Comes Second, Hal Rosenbluth and Diane Peters, 1992 and 2002): “Companies are only fooling themselves when they believe that ‘The Customer Comes First’ People do not inherently put the customer first, and they certainly don’t do it because their employer expects it. We’re not saying choose your people over your customers. We’re saying focus on your people because of your customers. That way everybody wins.”

    Here is the link to a recent joint webinar which addressed employee experience and employee ambassadorship: http://www.ultimatesoftware.com/Contact/hcm-webcast-designing-an-exceptional-employee-experience-from-the-inside-out?from=menu-promo

  3. Michael Lowenstein August 29, 2016 at 10:03 am (1326 comments) #

    Having read the two articles and the video suggested by Bill Fotsch (and many more articles, books, and videos as background for the new book I’m preparing, Employee Ambassadorship), I’ll repeat what was stated in my response to his comment: “…..very, very few organizations consistently treat their employees as business partners, enabling and empowering them to deliver value to each other, the company, and customers. This is real-world ambassadorship, a state beyond engagement, where both employee and customer experience are emphasized..”

    Often, when consultants and academics are pushing customer or employee engagement, they are citing models such as The Service Profit Chain. This model is built on equating customer satisfaction with increased sales and profits. Today, this premise can be broadly challenged: https://beyondphilosophy.com/connecting-satisfaction-behavior-service-profit-chain-employee-engagement-profit-chain-still-work/

  4. Rick Harris August 30, 2016 at 10:00 pm (7 comments) #

    Michael – I think you’re right that very few employers treat employees as partners. In my experience, very few employees want to be partners, and it’s a term they rarely use (without their employer implanting it into the conversation first!).
    Instead, I find employees wanting to feel they make a difference, and that employers who empower them to achieve that have a positive impact on both the customer experience and work satisfaction (work life balance too).

    Note: I attended the WorkHuman conference earlier this year, and found plenty of evidence supporting this, from speakers including Shawn Achor, Michelle Gielan and Gary Hamel.

  5. Michael Lowenstein August 31, 2016 at 6:05 am (1326 comments) #

    Rick – Agreed, and what you’re describing is employee ambassadorship, a state of experience vlaue optimization and behavior. This transcends the fit, productivity and alignment focus of employee engagement. As a concept, ambassadorship benefits employees and customers – – and the enterprise bottom line. Suggest books like The Customer Comes Second, Firms of Endearment, and Conscious Capitalism for reference.

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