Customer experiences are being harmed because business efforts to improve employee engagement are fundamentally flawed.
Without question, the vast majority of organisations now fully acknowledge the influence that employee experience has on the customer experience - which in turn influences revenue and profit.
As a result, there has been increasing attention paid to the employee experience in recent years, with growing focus on areas such as wellness, diversity, inclusion, mental health, capability development and training.
Yet despite the proliferation of these projects, estimates by Temkin Group suggest that the number of engaged employees still remains disturbingly low – with its research indicating that only 33% of staff are highly engaged, and that number dropping to as low as 26% for those aged 18-24. This last statistic is of particular concern because this demographic is amongst the most likely to be serving customers, whether in contact centres or in other customer-facing roles.
So why does engagement continue to be so low despite the surge in employee experience efforts?
Failure #1: Viewing employees as assets that must deliver a return
Steve Ellis, vice president for TTEC Learning & Performance, has had enough conversations with business leaders to identify a mindset that he believes commonly characterises the relationship with employees – to their detriment.
“Today’s leaders definitely understand that engaged, happy employees with the right tools and capabilities to deliver a great customer experiences equals revenue. They see that cause and effect,” he notes. “But most of the time companies are beholden to shareholders, and therefore most of the time they are beholden to the economic metrics that drive shareholder value.
“When I speak to leaders, their main drivers are economic measures - it's all about sales, profits or returns. That's the first front and centre thought, and nowhere in that is the word ‘employee’. Employees are clearly the resource that delivers sales and operational efficiency, but many leaders consider employees to be capital, which is why we have departments called ‘Human Capital’. ‘Capital’ is another money measure, so you end up seeing humans as an asset that needs to deliver a return.
“I think there's a lot of language in a lot of organisations that places the humans after the fact. It's like humans come later than money, or come later than capital.”
Failure #2: Trying to motivate staff with money
This obsession with dollars and cents is also reflected by the motivational strategies employed by organisations, with most companies far better at engaging employees in terms of economic goals than they are at appealing to their values of and motives.
But the use of monetary incentives, particularly related to customer experience levels, can often have unexpected consequences. Forrester’s Maxie Schmidt, for instance, is a vocal critic of the model – arguing that “monetary incentives backfires. Every time. Often in spectacular, unforeseen ways.”
Elsewhere, the work of Daniel Pink, a thought leader on organsiational design and motivation, has suggested that while money can be used quite successfully to incentivise simple, repetitive tasks, financial rewards do not work for more complex tasks or those that require a lot of cognitive skill – and can even have a negative impact on performance.
“Pink suggests that three things are critical to drive engagement and productivity,” says Ellis. “The first is autonomy - to what extent do they have free rein to innovate and make decisions? The second is mastery - to what extent can they professionalise and master their tasks, and how do you enable that? And, finally, purpose - to what extent do staff connect with the purpose and values of the company?”
Ellis continues: “Generally, leaders communicate and engage at the economic level because most people are motivated by some element of money. But they let the employee translate what that means, and sometimes that translation doesn't really appeal to every employee. I think the challenge with aligning goals to individual's values, motivators and needs is that they're all individuals, and we all have different values, motivators and needs.
“In order to get close to those values, motivators, and needs, leaders have to build a connection with their employees, they have to have some degree of intimacy about what's going on in their lives. They have to be generally curious and interested about their employees and not just interested about their employee's outputs, like productivity, and call handling rates.
“That requires resources like coaches, line managers and supervisors, and it requires them to have the time to have those curious, intimate, interested conversations.”
Failing #3: Not engaging staff with the company’s wider purpose
If understanding employee motivations is crucial, there is also the other side of the coin to consider: do employees understand the organisation’s motivations? Do staff know what the company’s purpose is, and do they buy into it?
Taking the example of the police force, its purpose is to keep the general public safe and its employees will understand that. For those organisations where the purpose is less obvious, it has become increasingly common to generate a purpose statement, such as ‘building a better future for humans’ or ‘connecting humans around the world’.
“Whatever the purpose is, it has to have meaning and connect with the employees in the organisation,” says Ellis. “There lies the challenge – because whether it’s a customer-centric purpose, or a profitability purpose, it has to be something that employees want to rally behind to achieve.
“The difficulty organisations have is making sure that employees believe the purpose, and in its authenticity. Nothing will undermine employee engagement more than having a purpose statement that the leaders are not congruent with. If ever there's a contradiction you start losing the beliefs of the employees and they certainly become disconnected with that purpose. If they're disconnected with the purpose, then they are just doing tasks and for no other reason than getting paid.
“So you need a purpose that’s meaningful. You have to demonstrate that it is authentic. You then have to have leaders that are making investment decisions that are congruent with that purpose. And then the leaders need to translate that purpose to every part of the business in a meaningful way.”
Failure #4: Not connecting day-to-day tasks to the bigger purpose
This takes us to the next shortcoming. As well as understanding and being engaged with the organisation’s wider purpose, the employees also need to understand how their basic, daily activities contribute to that purpose.
The most famous – and possibly apocryphal story – that best demonstrates this concerns President John F. Kennedy’s first visit to NASA headquarters in 1961. During his tour of the facility, he introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor and asked him what he did at NASA. “I’m helping put a man on the moon,” came the reply.
The janitor understood his employer’s wider purpose, and also understood his daily task’s contribution to it - by ensuring everything was spotless, all of the sensitive equipment could function without fault. The cleaner did not view himself as simply a janitor, but a member of the NASA space team with an important role.
Leaders have got to translate the organisation’s purpose to every part of the business in a meaningful way.
“One of the challenges business have is helping employees connect all of those daily tasks that can look a little bit dull one day or don't look strategic or don't look profound because they're daily,” says Ellis. “How do you make sure that employees see how all of those daily tasks add up to a higher purpose so that they are engaged with them?
“Leaders have got to translate the organisation’s purpose to every part of the business in a meaningful way. How does putting man on the moon translate to the cleaner? How does having a customer-centric purpose translate to a call centre agent? At the meaningful level, how does that tell you to behave and operate in a certain way? Does that tell you to smile more often, or to say please, or thank you, or does it help you answer the telephone in a slightly different way?”
And if leaders can understand employee values, expectations and needs, and further connect them to their daily goals, additional engagement can be achieved.
Ellis continues: “Engagement with daily tasks is really a leadership responsibility - how do leaders make sure that the fulfillment of daily tasks also helps that particular employee fulfill their values and their needs? If I happen to have a value called ‘competitiveness’, or a value called ‘promotion’, how do you make sure that those daily tasks appeal to that value? Or, let's say I've got a need called ‘paying the mortgage’, or ‘paying for a car’, how do you connect what it is you're asking me to do with the likelihood of me being able to pay my mortgage?
“If leaders can connect to those tasks with the reason why employees want to do those tasks in the first place - which is their own values, expectations and needs - then you've got way more engagement. For me, on a task-based level, it's about how do you get them to recognise that all those tasks add up to a higher purpose or a higher outcome for them like getting promoted, and for the organisation like ‘putting a man on the moon’.”
Failure #5: Not providing employees with the right knowledge, skills and tools
Finally, once motivation to complete daily goals has been fostered, organisations then need to ensure they provide employees with appropriate support.
“You have to make sure that your staff have got the knowledge, skills and tools to do the task,” Ellis emphasises. “There's nothing more disheartening than giving me a task to do and then creating bureaucracy, providing outdated tools and insufficient development to do the job.
“Once employees understand the importance of their daily tasks, organisations then have to make sure they've got the knowledge to do them, the skills to do them, but also ensure that the processes, the technology, the way in which employees interact with customers, is as easy as possible.”
About Neil Davey
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.