What Drives Customer-Related Employee Behavior? New Research Identifies Hidden Factors


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Companies are fond of saying that employees are their most powerful resource, and in many ways – especially their influence on customer loyalty – that’s been well proven. But, to understand what factors leverage employee behavior, most organizations have historically relied on satisfaction and engagement surveys, typically conducted through HR. However, there is little realization that these traditional research techniques are not remotely designed to identify the often hidden factors behind this behavior. This is particularly true when endeavoring to identify employees’ level of commitment to the company, to its product and/or service value proposition, and to its customers.

We have recently completed pathfinding employee behavior research for a major insurance company. Uniquely, the focus of this research was on emotional and subconscious drivers. After working with a cross-sectional team of client supervisors and managers, we jointly identified a total of nine employee attribute and touchpoint groupings, and a total of 40 individual elements. Several factors made this research process particularly distinctive:

– Almost half of the attributes had to do with employee/group customer focus and degree of business alignment, rarely if ever addressed in employee studies
– We incorporated value indicators in the research, i.e. drivers of employee satisfaction and engagement, which are usually seen, and drivers commitment/ambassadorship, which are almost never addressed
– The protocol also included components that looked at the emotional (and usually unexplored) responses of employees, i.e. how they feel, such as the level of trust, stress, frustration, etc.

Our method yields many useful and actionable insights, including effect, the value outcomes which the organization produces from employee behavior. Again, this is very different than what can be learned from employee satisfaction and engagement research.

From the research for our insurance client, there were a number of powerful results, many of which they had never seen from HR-led employee studies. For example, while there were positive results in the categories of business alignment and customer focus, this was counterbalanced by challenges in areas of advancement (career opportunity, salary, responsiveness to employee needs, etc.) and bonding (use of feedback for improvement, involvement in decisions that affect the employee’s work, etc.). Further, when our emotional profile was layered onto the results, employees’ feelings of frustration and stress (especially among those more tenured) had the potential of seriously impairing both employee behavior and customer experience. Also, longer-tenured employees showed lower positive emotional ratings, often at a significant level when compared to newer employees.

Our assessment of what enhanced and inhibited employee value delivery, on both a conscious and subconscious level, showed that it was clearly the subconscious aspects of employee experience that drove most organizational value. Again, supported by responses from HR management when results were presented, our findings produced results quite unlike their prior research that had been built around a satisfaction or engagement approach:

– Because of team work and shared information issues, degree of enterprise customer-centricity was called into question
– Tenure emerged as a pivotal employee issue
– Customer focus and business alignment are very important in understanding employee value and must be added to future employee surveys
– Challenges in advancement and bonding must be addressed

TQ guru W. Edwards Deming always counseled organizations that all employees have one of two jobs within the enterprise: They either directly support the customer or support someone who does. This is the essence of employee ambassadorship. Though I’ve conducted a great deal of earlier-generation employee ambassadorship research over the past decade, application of the emotionally-based protocol for this purpose was a very positive and productive learning experience, a foundation for further development. As noted above, there were valuable and prioritized insights for our client, the service component of the insurance company, to leverage going forward, and significant implications for the broader organization as well.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.


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