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Focus on Engagement to Improve Employee and Customer Engagement

Focus on Engagement to Improve Employee and Customer Engagement

Story Highlights

  • For an employee engagement effort to succeed, the conversation must be ongoing
  • Use strengths-specific coaching to create a culture of engagement
  • At this lender, customer engagement improved alongside employee engagement

Engagement and Purpose at Gallup Great Workplace Award Winner, Northwest Farm Credit Services

Very few ag producers can produce at scale -- and that scale can be as small as "able to support a family" -- without financing. The relationship between farmer and lender is behind most of the food we eat, though many consumers may never know it exists.

Food producers do.

And if they live in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington or Alaska, they have access to one of the most forward-thinking, community-oriented, customer-engaging financial cooperatives in the country, Northwest Farm Credit Services.

"For the last hundred years, our purpose has been to improve the lives of our customers and their families, our employees and their families, and the quality of the communities where we work and live," says Phil DiPofi, President and CEO of Northwest Farm Credit Services (Northwest FCS).

"We strongly believe engagement is a point of differentiation that puts us in a better place than our competitors."

The $12 billion co-op has accomplished that purpose for more than 100 years, providing financing and related services to farmers, ranchers, agribusinesses, commercial fishermen, timber producers, rural homeowners and crop insurance customers. But for the past nine years, they've done it with a focus on strengths and engagement.

"From our corporate social responsibility to our evaluation of individuals based on both behavioral and technical competencies," says DiPofi, "everything has to tether to that purpose and connect with every job in the company. So, in the context of that purpose, employee and customer engagement is fundamental."

Employee and Customer Engagement

Northwest FCS launched their employee and customer engagement journey with Gallup in 2013 with a strong start -- 41% of customers and 34% of employees were fully engaged.

As is typical, some employee engagement items were scored higher than others. Still, Northwest FCS leadership was surprised at the responses to certain questions: "expectations" and "recognition," for instance, came in below the 30th percentile of Gallup's database.

Those two needs are foundational in the workplace. And workplace cultures that consider engagement fundamental to purpose, like Northwest FCS, expect better numbers. Few organizations, though, could be expected to zero in on improving those numbers as quickly and effectively as Northwest FCS did.

"Engagement of employees, engagement of our customers, the purpose of the organization, that's in all our business plans." says DiPofi. "We believe wholeheartedly that great workplaces are not about a great company, they're about great workgroups. So my message is that engagement is the work of all of us."

To broadcast the message, the leadership team launched a "road show" -- with employee engagement as a core element -- that took them to every branch of the organization. Northwest FCS leadership made engagement a talking point in corporate communication, board meetings and annual reports. Indeed, the Northwest FCS Board of Directors began to request an annual presentation from Gallup regarding the engagement results, what the results mean, and what can be done to improve employee and customer engagement.

"We talk a lot about strategy and approach and purpose," DiPofi says. "From our first day orientation to our leadership meetings, engagement is a prominent element. I'm a big believer that if things are important, you've got to continuously talk about them."

To make sure the message was enculturated, Northwest FCS invited Gallup to its manager staff retreats to give managers three-hour sessions connecting employee engagement to the workplace experience, explaining how engagement influences business performance, and teaching managers how to drive change in their teams. Northwest FCS also provides the CliftonStrengths assessment to every employee. That allows managers to individualize, an essential aspect of a coaching culture, and cast workers in roles that capitalize on what they do best.

Meanwhile, DiPofi and the executive team hold all leaders responsible for continuing to support engagement within their teams. That's partly because Northwest FCS understands a leader's role in driving engagement -- and it's partly because engagement is good for business.

"We strongly believe engagement is a point of differentiation that puts us in a better place than our competitors," says DiPofi. "It comes down to the quality of your people and the level of emotional connection they have with a customer base."

Driving Engagement Year Over Year

Within a year, Northwest FCS' laser focus on engagement got results. And then it got accolades.

Between 2013 and 2014, Northwest FCS' employee engagement GrandMean percentile more than doubled, moving from the 40th percentile to the 81st in Gallup's database.

By 2016, Northwest FCS was in the 96th percentile, categorizing the cooperative as a Gallup World-Class Organization.

What's more, the organization's customer engagement score has grown without fail year after year -- evidence of what can be accomplished with a highly engaged workforce.

In 2018, Northwest FCS was named for a third consecutive year to the Best Places to Work Inland Northwest by the Spokane Journal of Business. The co-op's Glassdoor rating paints a similar picture, with 99% of reviewers saying they'd recommend Northwest FCS as a place to work.

What's more, the organization's customer engagement score has grown without fail year after year -- evidence of what can be accomplished with a highly engaged workforce.

In 2018, Northwest FCS hit its highest mark yet -- the 99th percentile in Gallup's employee engagement database, meaning Northwest FCS is as or more engaged than 99% of all the companies Gallup has studied. Ever.

In addition to growing customer engagement results, Northwest FCS has seen improved financial outcomes, too, with record-high capital, earnings, and credit quality for the past few years. And through intentional, strategic commitment to engagement, the momentum keeps building -- in 2022, Gallup announced that Northwest FCS received its sixth Gallup Exceptional Workplace Award.

Their Most Valuable Asset

Those are the kinds of numbers business leaders pay attention to, especially in a highly competitive industry like lending.

And, as noted earlier, the relationship between a producer and their lender is critical to ag businesses. The farmers, ranchers, foresters and fishers in Northwest FCS' territory have options. But they choose to do business with Northwest FCS.

DiPofi thinks he knows why: Northwest FCS recognizes -- more so than its competitors -- the relationship between customer-member and lender isn't just financial. It's emotional, too. That's the quality that brings customers back -- and the quality that creates engagement.

"We've been a purpose-driven company even before Lawrence Fink [BlackRock CEO who famously requires notation of the 'societal impact of your business' in the strategy statements of the companies BlackRock invests in] started demanding it," says DiPofi. "Because people aren't going to commit their most valuable asset, their time, just to maximize shareholder value. That doesn't sound like something you'd really want to commit a lifetime of work to accomplish. Engagement is not just about the dollars, it's about the emotional connection between purpose and people. And all things being equal, people like to do business with people they trust and like."

Gallup can help your organization move the needle on employee and customer engagement:

Jennifer Robison and Rujuta Gandhi contributed to this article.

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