Now, Let’s Talk About the Employee Experience


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There has been a lot of attention paid recently to the concept of the customer experience. Despite the fact that there is little consensus on exactly what constitutes a customer experience, there has nevertheless been a growing consensus that there is something to the notion that the experience that a customer has in dealing with a firm is of considerable importance in influencing satisfaction and ultimately loyalty.

But, there has been little attention paid, it seems to me, to the fact that most customer experiences are also employee experiences in the sense that a very large percentage of the interactions that customers have with businesses involve dealing with employees. I’d suggest that how pleasant and rewarding that experience is for the employee may have considerable impact on how satisfying the experience is for the customer.

There is considerable evidence to support the view that employees who enjoy what they are doing will have a more positive attitude toward their jobs and that will show through in how they treat customers — happy employees; happy customers. Much research, including the work of Jim Heskett and his colleagues at Harvard on the Service-Profit Chain, demonstrates the connection between the internal environment to which the employee is exposed, the quality of service that employee provides, customer satisfaction and, ultimately, loyalty.

The theory goes that if we give them the tools to do the job, the authority and flexibility to make their own decisions, and so on, they will (surprise, surprise!) tend to act in the best interest of the customer — the result is happier staff and customers.

So, what goes wrong? There are enough angry customers out there to suggest that what sounds pretty commonsensical in theory doesn’t always play out in practice. More often than not, rules, regulations, systems, scripts and policies get in the way of allowing the employees to be people. We create artificial experiences for employees by forcing them to act against their better judgement and against their nature. Remember Arlie Hochschild’s groundbreaking 1983 book The Managed Heart, in which she talked about “emotional labor”; the tendency for organizations to cause employees to suppress their normal inclinations, instincts and emotions. The result is tremendous frustration and job dissatisfaction, that (no surprise) get telegraphed pretty clearly to customers.

Maybe at the same time that we are spending so much effort studying and attempting to improve the customer experience, it makes sense to be taking a long, hard look at the employee experience as well. The two are inseparable. What affects one, impacts the other. One problem that gets in the way of this perspective is that the customer experience is typically seen to be the responsibility of Marketing or Customer Service, while the factors that impact the quality of the employee experience are more likely the responsibility of HR. This is why I would argue that HR must have shared responsibility for the quality of customer service and for the customer experience, and should be at the table for all discussions that relate to the customer.


  1. Jim,

    I agree with you that scripts, systems and rules often interfere with an employee’s ability to respond appropriately to customers. However, some employees are not up to the challenge. An executive of a hotel chain recently told me that they got rid of the scripts clerks used at check-in because they were stiff and didn’t always fit the situation. Clerks were told analyze the situation and to do what was right for the customer. He said that about half of the clerk got the concept and performed very well. The other half was almost paralyzed, in spite of having been through some training.

    What does one do? They recognized that some people lack the emotional intelligence for the job as it was newly defined. Others need to build their confidence and repertoire of actions. The hotel is now setting up a process that let clerks observe each other and learn from each other. Even with this, some find the new responsibility stressful and are being assigned new roles.

    John I. Todor, Ph.D.
    Author of Addicted Customers: How to Get Them Hooked on Your Company.

  2. Hi John

    As with most things in life, emotional intelligence and the skills necessary to assess a situation and respond accordingly are normally distributed; some people are naturally brilliant at it and others shouldn’t be allowed within 50 feet of a customer. Which suggests that hiring is the most important decision one makes with respect to customer service. A respected hotelier in Dublin, whose staff offered the best service I’ve ever experienced and who enjoyed the lowest turnover rate in the midst of the hotel boom of the late 1990s observed to me that his success was “all in the selection.” It wasn’t just that, but he did hire on the basis of personality and then led by example.

    Part of what you suggest is needed represents what I mean by giving employees the tools to do the job. I’d include not simply offering them the freedom to make decisions, but also equipping them with the knowledge and the confidence to do so, including the leadership and the guidance so that they’ll know what’s the right thing to do. But, as you suggest, not all will respond well and those that don’t will likely enjoy and be good at positions that involve less customer contact.

    Jim Barnes

  3. Jim,

    Hiring is a critical decision, critical to both the employee and company. I think The Container Store does a lot of things right in this department. On the careers section of their web site they make the statement that they believe one great employee is worth three good ones. That sets a tone that should motivate the right people to apply and sets the tone for how they should behave at work. They don’t stop there. Employees get over 240 hours of training per year. That’s at least ten time the normal for retail.

    I interviewed a few of their employees awhile back an the statement made by one young lady sticks with me, “do you know how go it feels to really be able to help customers.”

    John I. Todor, Ph.D.
    Author of Addicted Customers: How to Get Them Hooked on Your Company.


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