Engage employees using customer service tactics

The following post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network.

Most companies claim they want enthusiastic, engaged employees — and with good reason. Employee engagement and financial performance are connected. A recent study by Aon Hewitt, for example, found that companies with high levels of engagement outperformed the stock market in 2010.

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And yet Gallup research indicates that more than 70 percent of employees in the typical company are "not engaged" or "actively disengaged."

What's the reason for this failure? In my view, it boils down to a startling disconnect between how companies try to promote engagement and what truly inspires and motivates employees.

At most companies, the human resources department "owns" and measures engagement. It issues a lengthy annual survey, asking employees a withering barrage of questions — everything from your overall satisfaction to the adequacy of prescription benefits to whether you have a "best friend" at work. The resulting report, issued after lengthy analysis, leads to an improved benefits program, "supervisor coaching," or other initiatives run by staff at the center.

This approach is just like the way most companies used to deal with customers. Marketing or customer service departments owned customer satisfaction, relied on traditional staff-directed tools (such as training programs) to improve it, and gauged their success through old-style satisfaction surveys.

In recent years, however, leading companies such as Zappos and Apple have led a revolution in creating great customer experiences:

They make wowing customers a priority for every frontline employee, not just a central team at headquarters. Instead of infrequent satisfaction studies, they ask their customers for feedback all the time.

These companies typically give their customers short, quick surveys. They promptly distribute the scores and verbatim responses to frontline reps and supervisors, who follow up right away with unhappy customers, fixing the problems wherever possible. And these companies build closed-loop learning into their daily operations so that they're constantly improving.

These efforts earn these companies deep, long-lasting customer loyalty. Their customers not only spend more, stay longer, and recommend the company to their friends, but they also contribute ideas for improvement because they believe the company values their feedback.

So, suppose you applied that same methodology to building employee engagement. What would you do differently?

For one thing, you'd conduct short surveys that respect your employees' time and ask only the few questions that yield the most important insights. You would do this often enough to generate a steady stream of information about engagement levels and ideas for improvement. JetBlue, whose employees I wrote about in my last post, sends a survey ninety days after an employee's start date and every year thereafter. Apple surveys its employees every few months.

And instead of delegating the effort to HR, you'd make employee engagement a top priority for frontline managers and employees themselves, with built-in procedures for closed-loop learning.

In fact, you'd take away the crutch of thinking that "someone else" is taking care of it, placing responsibility squarely and undeniably on the shoulders of frontline managers. That's how it's done at Apple stores. After each survey wave, store managers review the data for their store. Employee focus groups identify key themes and issues, and employee teams help develop solutions, which they present to store management. There is no waiting for analysis and recommendations from some central team. By the time the next survey comes around in a few months, managers and store employees know whether their solutions have had the desired effect.

It shouldn't be surprising that the same basic techniques for earning customer loyalty also work with employees. At their core, both efforts depend on treating people with dignity and respect. Both require real-time learning. Both address the relationship in a human way, not just as a transaction or piece of data.

And, as it happens, they reinforce each other. Employees learn how to wow customers and feel great when they do. Customers love the experience. It's a virtuous cycle — something we call the Promoter Flywheel — and it leads to great financial performance.

Conventional approaches to employee engagement tend to focus on overall workplace improvements and benefits because those things can be directed by staff from the center. They're the "easy" things to do. Obviously, they're important: A safe and pleasant work environment, fair compensation, and the tools needed to do the job are table stakes for employee satisfaction.

But what you really want isn't just satisfied employees, it's passionate employees — people who love working for your company, love your products and services, and love wowing customers. You build that kind of advocacy by creating a real commitment to enriching your customers' lives, giving employees the tools and freedom to delight customers, and helping them see and hear the effects of their actions.

This series of posts from Rob Markey highlights the ideas in a new book by Fred Reichheld and Rob, The Ultimate Question 2.0: How Net Promoter Companies Thrive in a Customer-Driven World (HBR Press).