Service workers are among the least engaged in the U.S. And their level of engagement has declined even as engagement has increased for every other job category.
This Gallup finding is an ominous sign for leaders who entrust their customers to the care of these workers. If front-line employees aren't engaged, chances are that the company's customers won't be either.
When it comes to boosting customer engagement, the back office matters as much as the front line.
But customer-facing workers aren't the only ones executives must worry about. All employees are brand ambassadors, even the ones customers don't see.
"In almost any company, employees who aren't customer-facing play a quality and support role," says John Fleming, Gallup chief scientist of marketplace management and author of Human Sigma: Managing the Employee-Customer Encounter. "One of the critical elements for every worker is a direct line of sight to the customers and how their work affects customers. Think of a bank customer who needs a copy of a check. A lot of people have to work together to get it, and get it right. The customer will perceive the bank's quality based on how well those people work together."
All employees must understand how their individual contribution relates to the company's mission and purpose, whether that mission is to make a profit and increase earnings per share (EPS), raise funds to keep a nonprofit operation running, or provide healthcare to those in need. Front-line employees have ongoing opportunities to serve as brand ambassadors in direct interactions with existing and potential customers. But employees behind the scenes must see themselves as brand ambassadors too.
An emotional connection between employee and customer
The moment when an employee creates an emotional connection with a customer has profound implications for a company's productivity and profitability. Employees who know how to make the most of these moments can engage customers -- and engaged customers spend more, visit more often, resist competitive overtures, promote the company's brand to others, and forgive the occasional service blunder. Companies that know how to prepare employees to engage customers can drive real growth.
Gallup's HumanSigma approach, based on research conducted with 10 million employees and 10 million customers worldwide, is a framework companies can use to optimize business outcomes. It integrates Gallup's Q12 employee engagement and CE11 customer engagement metrics, which amplifies their revenue-producing results by aligning an engaged workforce with customers' emotional needs. When organizations successfully engage their customers and their employees, they experience a 240% boost in performance-related business outcomes compared with an organization that has neither engaged employees nor engaged customers.
"HumanSigma performance is directly related to financial performance. Companies that improve the first improve the second," says Fleming. "Looking at employee and customer engagement together gives executives a map that lets them see where to deploy resources most efficiently."
Every employee plays a role in engaging customers
When it comes to boosting customer engagement, the back office matters as much as the front line. Employees in supporting or behind-the-scenes roles -- such as administration, billing, IT, research, and design, to name a few -- can feel like their positions don't relate to customers because they never see customers. But their work is vital to the customer experience.
Great managers help employees understand how every role in the organization connects to the customer. Every direct or indirect point of contact -- through a bill, an ATM transaction, an online interface, or a product -- has the potential to make a customer feel more or less engaged with the company. These experiences are rarely neutral. Great managers recognize this and help motivate all employees to engage customers by accelerating employees' development and unleashing their innovation and productivity.
Building brand ambassadors at all levels of a company
Engaged employees, whether on the front lines or several layers removed, are well-qualified to serve as a company's brand ambassadors. When employees interact with your existing or potential customers, they give meaning and dimension to your company's brand promise. The best employee brand ambassadors don't stop at the end of the workday. They extol the virtues and values of their company's brand even when they are off the clock -- in conversations with friends, family, and neighbors and on social media.
"Engaged employees tend to be students of the company's history and products, and they can articulate the brand promise and know how to deliver it," says Fleming. "They're passionate about the companies they work for, so when the opportunity arises, engaged employees are more likely to spontaneously and voluntarily advocate for their companies."
The notion that a company's employees represent the "face" of its brand is not new. But as companies seek to win in today's marketplace, many executives have begun to see the potential that their engaged employees represent. To maximize the power of their engaged employees, companies must give them the knowledge and resources they need to be effective brand ambassadors. Employees must:
- know what the organization stands for and what makes it different from others in the marketplace
- understand the company's brand promise and be able to explain the most important elements of the brand identity
- be empowered to deliver on the brand promise
Yet Gallup's recent research with more than 3,000 randomly selected workers shows that only 41% of employees felt that they know what their company stands for and what makes its brand different from its competitors. When examining the data by job role, 60% of executives strongly agreed that they know what their company stands for and what makes its brand(s) different from its competitors, compared with 46% of managers. But only slightly more than one-third (37%) of "other" employees (non-executives and non-managers) strongly agreed that they understand their company's brand promise and brand differentiation, yet these workers are the most likely to interact with customers every day.
These findings suggest that too many companies are failing to help their workers understand what makes their company different and better than the rest. If employees do not understand their company's identity and know what sets it apart, it is unlikely that customers will either. And that is a big miss, one with substantial performance implications.
Leaders must align each employee to the company's brand promise.
Equip employees to win customers
When workers are engaged but not aligned with their organization's brand, it limits their power to create an engaging customer experience that will actually drive EPS. Great companies understand that employee engagement itself is not a destination -- it is a platform to even higher performance, greater productivity, and increased revenue. Fully engaged customers represent a 23% premium in terms of share of wallet, profitability, revenue, and relationship growth over average customers.
To maximize employee and customer interactions and win in the marketplace, a company needs engaged employees in every facet of its operation, not just in customer-facing roles. Each employee must understand the importance of his or her role to the company's mission and purpose, and each must be empowered to do what is right for customers -- and for the company's brand. Leaders must also align each employee to the company's brand promise and ensure that he or she is prepared and equipped to be a positive brand ambassador for the organization, both on and off the clock. Once organizations master these areas, they are well on their way to a truly optimized workforce.
"When your employees know your company's brand promise and have the tools and talent to deliver it to customers, all they need is the right opportunity," says Fleming. And when you have this kind of employee, any opportunity is the right opportunity.
10 Ways to Improve the Customer Experience
Gallup's research shows that few employees are aligned with or empowered to deliver the core elements of their company's brand identity and promise. Executives must start by engaging their employees and then taking these steps to help their workers become effective brand ambassadors.
1. Acknowledge that all employees play a key role in bringing the brand to life. Successful branding is not just a marketing or sales function; it is an essential activity for human resources, management, and leadership.
2. Audit your internal communications to ensure that they are consistent with your brand identity and promise. Invest in making employees aware of your brand promise, and empower them to act on it.
3. Articulate what your brand represents and what you promise to your customers. Inject the core elements of your identity into the workplace constantly and consistently across time, locations, and channels. Use these elements to define not only how you treat your customers but also how you manage, coach, and treat your employees.
4. Deploy simple processes to ensure that you highlight and discuss the core elements of your company's brand identity every day. Use minute meetings, lineups, or staff gatherings to provide specific examples of how to deliver the brand promise.
5. Use simple tools such as wallet cards as ready references to the brand, and require employees to memorize the key brand elements.
6. Regularly assess how well your employees know and understand your brand promise. All employees -- especially those in customer-facing roles -- should believe in and feel they have the resources and permission to deliver your brand promise. Provide additional support in areas that fall short.
7. Ensure that new employees understand your brand identity and promise. All new employees should be able to articulate what your company stands for and what makes you different within their first 30 days of employment, and your managers should reinforce this message every day.
8. Make sure that every employee understands how his or her job affects the customer experience. This is particularly important for roles that are not customer-facing. Constantly connect the dots between what employees are paid to do and what your organization stands for.
9. Recognize employees who deliver your brand promise to your customers. Recognition is an important psychological need. Employees who know that they will receive recognition for acting on the brand promise will have a strong incentive to do so.
10. Regularly solicit opinions from your employees on new and better ways to deliver your brand promise. Convene town hall meetings that allow employees to share their ideas and receive feedback. Demonstrating an authentic commitment to alignment is the best way to embed it in your company's culture.