Volunteers at Work


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For many years, I’ve gone on record saying that the reason you and I, as customers, consistently receive predictably poor customer service is because exceptional customer service is voluntary; employees don’t have to deliver it, and most don’t.

It’s true. While there are things that employees do have to do, providing exceptional customer service isn’t one of them. Instead, their focus is typically on protocol, processes, policies and procedures – the same types of things that managers tend to inspect. At shift’s end, whether or not a cashier’s drawer balances is the subject of tremendous scrutiny by her manager. But whether or not she delighted customers throughout the day by choosing to smile, make eye contact, use names, and add enthusiasm to her voice, may or may not come up.

For a cashier, balancing at shift’s end is a non-negotiable requirement. Choosing to express genuine interest in customers by smiling and making eye contact, however, is voluntary.

Six motivations to go above and beyond

University of Pennsylvania professor, Adam Grant, has conducted extensive research on corporate volunteerism. In this article, he describes six motivators that initiate corporate volunteering that also influence an employee’s choice to expend the discretionary effort needed to raise customer service quality from ordinary to extraordinary:

  1. Pro-social; for the benefit of others: In the context of customer service, this means choosing to be helpful and delighting in the opportunity to serve others. This is always a voluntary decision made by the service provider.
  2. Belonging; for the relationships: Employees look to build and strengthen relationships with others. This includes both coworkers and customers.
  3. Self-enhancement; for the self-esteem boost: Employees, after developing and displaying their ability to deliver exceptional customer service, bask in the glow of compliments from peers, superiors, and customers – all of which reinforce desired behavior.
  4. Self-protective; for the distraction: When employees lean in to their roles as service providers, choosing to consistently delight coworkers and customers by refusing to deliver transactional customer service, treating each customer like the one before, they view work as a positive outlet. This may serve to distract attention away from other aspects of their life that aren’t as positive or fulfilling.
  5. Developmental; for the knowledge and skills: Employees look to acquire job knowledge and develop job skills that will increase their competency and, by extension, their marketability.
  6. Career; for the job prospects: Employees who choose to expend the discretionary effort required to make lasting positive impressions on coworkers and customers anticipate that their initiative will be rewarded with opportunities for career advancement.

The extent to which these motivators are acknowledged and facilitated by management will influence an employee’s decision to take initiative at work, go above and beyond in the service of others, and commit to achieving other organizational priorities.

Designing jobs to promote above and beyond behavior

Job design may have a substantial impact on satisfying the above motivators. In his article, Professor Grant shares three job characteristics that have a substantial impact on employee motivations and contribute to a job’s desirability:

  1. Task characteristics: The duties, tasks, and methods used to deliver products and/or services to customers that have a substantial, lasting impact on them. (Don’t assume that employees are aware of this impact. Frequently, employees do not see the connection between what they do day-to-day and the organization’s purpose.) Without purpose, job roles lack meaning. Employees have something to work on, but nothing to work toward.
  2. Social characteristics: The structural features of a job that influence employees’ interpersonal interactions and relationships, allowing them to develop friendships and exchange support. When these social characteristics are enriched, jobs fulfill the desire for connection with others, which is a core motive in life and at work.
  3. Knowledge characteristics: The aspects of a job that affect the development and utilization of information and skills, providing employees the opportunity to learn, solve problems, and acquire skills. A central desire of employees is to obtain and project competence at work.

Grant’s research suggests that employees with enriched task, social, and knowledge characteristics may feel grateful to the organization for providing desirable jobs and may reciprocate with stronger commitment to the organization’s purpose, goals, and objectives. And employees tend to repeat positive behavior, such as delivering exceptional customer service, when they engage in the experience with strong motives. When employees’ jobs are enriched, their core motivations of meaning, connection, and learning are likely to be satisfied.

Sustaining above and beyond behavior

According to the role identity perspective, the strongest predictor of long-term engagement in delivering exceptional customer service is the internalization of the employee’s role (relative to job purpose) into her self-concept. The repeated act of delivering exceptional customer service leads employees to internalize the particular role as a critical part of their identities.

Research shows that individuals are most likely to internalize a particular identity when company leadership values this behavior. Recognition, for instance, only motivates people when their efforts are important to the group providing the recognition. According to Grant, recognition in conjunction with managerial support is likely to sustain employees’ experiences of volitional, autonomous behavior, promoting internalization.

Beyond emphasizing the importance of desired behavior and recognizing it daily, leadership must model, not mandate, the behavior they expect from employees. In the absence of pressure, employees are more likely to feel personally responsible for their decision to provide exceptional customer service, which will increase the likelihood of internalizing their identity as an exceptional customer service provider. Besides, you can’t force an employee to care any more than you can force a customer to be loyal.

Ready, set, go above and beyond!

While I don’t expect for employees to volunteer their time in lieu of a salary at a for-profit enterprise, it’s not romantic to believe that you can create jobs and a work environment that encourages volunteer-like commitment and initiative.

Professor Grant’s research on corporate volunteerism informs customer service professionals about employee motivation that influences one’s decision to expend the discretionary effort required to elevate customer service quality from ordinary to extraordinary. Further, it examines the characteristics that, when incorporated into job design, promote a stronger commitment to the organization’s purpose. And, lastly, it suggests ways to sustain this effort including frequent recognition and positive role modeling by leadership.

Managers are encouraged to explore employee motivation, shape enriched job roles, and create a work environment that encourages employees to take initiative and expend discretionary effort in the moment of choice.

Illustration credit: Daniel Ruesch Design


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