What Really Influences Stakeholder Behavior? Well, “Take Nothing On Its Looks…”

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One of my all-time favorite quotes has to do with proof. It’s from Dickens’ wonderful book, Great Expectations. In the part of the story where the quote is given, Pip, the protagonist, tells Jaggers, his lawyer, that he knows who is providing the finances for his comfortable standard of living. As we learn later in the story, Pip’s assumption turns out to be completely wrong. Jaggers also represents the party funding Pip, but isn’t at liberty to divulge this information. So, he says to Pip: “Not a particle of evidence, Pip,” said Mr. Jaggers, shaking his head. “Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.”

Whether in any other element of life and work we encounter, people and institutions are constantly making assumptive statements where adequate proof is a secondary or tertiary consideration. Sometimes, accuracy is a non-consideration, and statements are made without even a shred of truth; and on occasion give a fully fictional, made-up lie or story, created to support an idea or goal. Politicians, news anchors, and used car sales people, for example, are famous for this.

We see taking things on its looks in the realm of customer experience and behavior, especially where employee influence is concerned, as fairly pervasive and accepted. To illustrate, here are two (of many) quotes from respected sources, directly linking employee engagement to customer behavior and financial outcomes:

1. “Satisfied and engaged employees provide a better customer experience, leading to improved customer satisfaction and loyalty, which in turn fuels business growth.”

2. ‘Engagement is an employee’s connection and commitment to a company. Engaged employees bring more to work each day, and are better able to build customer relationships.”

These statements seem almost intuitive, and ‘look’ like they should be correct. But are they supported by real proof, even superficially? Where is the evidence?

One of the chief interpretive challenges with ‘employee engagement’ is that it is not a concise, unified idea. Or, as John Oliver might say, it isn’t a ‘thing.’ Employee engagement has many meanings and interpretations, but relatively little of it has to do, by conceptual definition, specifically with impact on customer behavior. Thorough analysis conducted by The Conference Board in 2006 showed that, among twelve leading engagement research companies, twenty-six key drivers of engagement could be identified, of which eight were common to all:

– Trust and integrity – How well do managers communicate and ‘walk the talk‘?
– Nature of the job – Is it mentally stimulating day-to-day?
– Line of sight between employee performance and company performance – Do
employees understand how their work contributes to the company’s performance?
– Career growth opportunities – Is there positive movement and growth within the
company?
– Pride about the company – How much self-esteem do the employees feel by being
associated with their company?
– Coworkers/team members – How much influence do they exert on the employee’s
level of engagement?
– Employee development – Is the company making an effort to develop the
employee’s skills?
– Relationship with one’s manager – Does the employee value relationship(s) with
manager(s), and is there trust and credibility between the levels?

Engagement, as practiced in most organizations, is largely about employee ‘fit’, alignment and productivity. Typically, as in the above list, there is little or no mention/inclusion of ‘customer’ or ‘customer focus’ elements either in measurement or analysis of employee engagement. Even the most rigorous studies of engagement’s connection to customer experience, and resultant behavior, show that the effect of engagement on customers does exist but is more tangential and inferential than purposeful in nature.

Some years ago, a CustomerThink blog endeavored to make the case for linking attitudinal employee satisfaction and engagement to customer advocacy behavior, calling engagement a ‘domino effect’ which would directly influence positive and negative employee informal word-of-mouth, and thus customer word-of-mouth. There have been entire books on this subject. As with virtually all of these cases and claims, there were vague references to credible sources – such as polling organizations, employee behavior and organizational consultants, and industry media – but little consistent or substantive proof.

Employee engagement can, as noted, definitely affect corporate profitability at the macro level (as much as three to four times higher for top-scoring engagement companies compared to those on the bottom half of companies using this measure); and that’s one of the really valuable results it provides. So, there is little argument that employee satisfaction and engagement don’t at least somewhat influence customers’ emotional response and memory of experiences; but there is considerably more to the story if the uncovered truth, and proof, is to be used as evidence.

Voice of the customer and voice of the employee programs need to incorporate deeper emotional and subconscious response, and amplification effects such as offline and online informal word-of-mouth. We’ve learned through our emotionally-based employee research protocol that, just like debriefing customers when the rational and emotional components of the experience are considered, employees also need to be debriefed on this deeper level. In other words, debriefing should include not only attitudinal elements of satisfaction and engagement, but on employees’ more subconscious on-the-job emotions, plus commitment to organizational goals, their perception of value delivery to customers, and communication to others as a representative of the enterprise. In addition, employees need to know what customers think on a regular basis, because it sensitizes them to decision dynamics in the customers’ world.

All of this builds employee ambassadorship, and there is substantial proof of the connection of ambassadorship to customer loyalty behavior. Our emotionally-focused and value delivery-focused employee research results, again just as with customers, meet lawyer Jaggers’ requirement for the proof between employee behavior and customer advocacy.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I appreciate and agree with your focus on employee engagement and customer engagement as a great way to drive profitable growth. We have found a consistently effective way to do this is to through economic transparency, sometimes referred to as Open-Book Management. I have working with over 400 clients from privately held companies to large companies like Southwest Airlines, Capital One and BHP Billiton, all of which have documented improvement in both the financial results and the lives of the employees that drive those results.
    These are two of many articles we have written that provide more context:
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/fotschcase/2015/07/20/introducing-a-blog-about-companies-that-engage-their-employees-by-opening-the-books/
    http://blogs.hbr.org/2014/06/share-your-financials-to-engage-employees/
    This Carlson Travel video provides another example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RJAEHPOxPQ
    Are you familiar with OBM and if so, are you a fan?

  2. I’m very aware of OBM, and support its precepts – for employee engagement. Through trust and integrity, OBM helps leverage employee emotional connection to the organization and its product/service value proposition. It also leverages employee productivity, and so contributes to financial performance and employee experience at the macro level.

    What OBM doesn’t do, and isn’t specifically designed to do, so far as I’m aware of the concept, is build ambassadorship, i.e. focusing the enterprise or the employee on being more proactive with customers and/or delivering optimum customer experiences: http://www.slideshare.net/BeyondPhilosophyUSA/beyond-philosophy-employee-engagement-and-ambassadorship-v-3

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