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.