“Employee engagement has today become the holy grail of customer experience because it has been shown that customers who score the highest in customer engagement measures have experienced a service delivered by employees who in turn are highly engaged with their business.” – Sarah Cook
In ‘Leading the Customer Experience‘ Sarah Cook makes a strong case for building an internal climate that is conducive to customer-centricity through inspirational service leadership. What I particularly appreciated about this book is its ability to describe the behaviours of leaders who successfully create and execute a clear vision around both customer and employee engagement. In addition, I like its pragmatic approach to the topic: Cook offers a rich collection of practical tools, techniques and examples that organisations can start using today.
There are many definitions of employee engagement. Cook likes to talk about harnessing discretionary efforts which, she believes, relies first and foremost on respect: “it implies that employees have a choice in how they behave and whether they go out of their way to deliver above and beyond.
“Respect means trusting people and interacting with them in an adult way, trusting that their intention is positive.”
However, four other elements need to be considered.
Humility is important because it lets employees and customers feel good about themselves. “People realise that they do not have to impress this individual, they do not have to pretend; they will not be judged and they will be accepted for who they are – a human being! A human being is not perfect and we all have our faults. When we don’t need to impress, we can really push the boundaries to realise our potential.”
There are a number of ways a leader can demonstrate humility to others, for example by expecting the best from others, trusting them, showing kindness and forgiveness as well as saying sorry. The latter is worth highlighting: “everyone, including leaders, is not perfect. We will make mistakes, we will say wrong thing and we can do something unintentionally which will upset someone. The power of saying ‘sorry’ cannot be underestimated and is a great way of showing you can admit your mistakes and take responsibility for your own behaviour. The outcome of this is that the individual on the receiving end feels valued and understood and the likelihood of your relationship growing stronger is greater.”
The ability to relate to others, which Cook likes to refer to as ‘connectedness’, is another characteristic of great leaders. It is about stepping into the world of customers and employees to truly understand their concerns and perspectives.
“It means being able to genuinely listen and value those ideas and work with them. It involves being genuinely curious about others and seeking to understand their viewpoint rather than pushing your own.”
The author provides leaders with some useful questions to consider in order to improve their area of connectedness:
- Who do you need to listen to more – customers, team members or other department? What steps will you take to make that happen?
- Who do you need to spend more time with so you can ‘step into their world’ and appreciate their agenda?
- What can you do internally to encourage more questioning and challenging? How can you build an environment of curiosity?
- What external conferences or forums could you attend or become a member of to increase your connectedness outside your own organisation?
As a customer we soon know whether the person we are dealing with cares or not. But as an employee how do we know if our leader genuinely cares about us? This is a question Cook has asked leaders over the last few years. The answers have been always the same and include:
- Acknowledge and notice others for example by saying ‘Good morning, how are you? How was your weekend?’
- Give the person your undivided attention and maintain eye contact during conversations
- Ask others questions and their opinions and actively listen
- Provide on-going feedback
- Regularly compliment people both publicly and privately
- Spend time finding out what is important to others
When we look at this list, there is nothing really new – all those activities have been succinctly discussed in many business management books. Yet they are a good reminder since practice shows that they still are easily forgotten and avoided in many workplaces. As the author puts it, “as leaders we always have choices and if we know that spending a few minutes with others chatting about them and how they are doing can make a difference to their day and ultimately how they perform, then why would we not do it?”
Indeed, there are occasions when a few minutes of ‘chatting’ can become the best time investment of a leader.
Being tolerant of others’ mistakes and seeing them as an opportunity to learn is another quality of great service leaders.
I found the example of toymaker Lego, particularly appropriate to make this point. The company has built a ‘Future Lab’ to explore new products and experiences for the Lego customer, particularly. “The aim of the lab is to deliberately disrupt the organisation from within, rather than wait until a competitor disrupts their business. They learn as much about themselves and their customers from failure as they do from success. Their attitude is ‘How could we have learnt a better way of doing things for the customer if we had never made mistakes?’
Why EQ is so important
The position the author takes in relation to the notion of emotional intelligence (EQ) is also worth considering. While the ability to empathize with others is critical to every service organisation, EQ is still not universally developed and encouraged.
Oftentimes, people reach positions of authority because of their technical ability and capability to think logically. Such managers pay attention to facts but can overlook emotions and feelings, an approach that often affect the ability to create and maintain rapport.
Similarly, the fear of ‘letting go’ can cause many leaders to be reluctant to empower, which in turns leads to lack of trust. “Employees of large organisations frequently do not feel the personal impact of their decisions.”
However, there are approaches that an organisation can use to improve its EQ, and Cook makes available a succinct selection:
- Ask your team to experience the service they provide from a customer’s perspective and to identify the feelings this experience generated
- Encourage your team to bring in examples of best practice in customer service and those which display EQ
- Provide training skills needed in handling difficult customer situations. Put particular emphasis on showing genuine empathy to the customer when things go wrong
- Give feedback to your team on how they are performing – motivational feedback will develop their level of confidence and developmental feedback will help them to improve. Be prepared to listen to feedback on your own performance
- Talk about what causes your team stress as part of your regular team meeting. Take steps to overcome causes of stress
- Acknowledge what individuals in your team are feeling and offer them help and support
The power of praise
If there is something that creates feelings of pleasure and pride at work, this is recognition. A few words like ‘Well done’, ‘Great idea!’, ‘Thank you’, and “I am proud of you’ can make all the difference in the day-to-day life of an employee.
Yet, our tendency is to pick up what someone has not been doing or achieved rather than successful behaviours. But, any leader can make improvements in this area if they are committed to recognise their people and Cook once again, offers some tips:
- In the past seven days have you given someone at work some praise?
- Was it timely and genuine?
- Do you share praise for an employee with their co-workers where appropriate?
- Is the recognition you use appropriate in size to the level of effort and achievement?
- Do you encourage peer to recognise one another?
- Do you recognise employees for developing new ideas or showing initiative?
Increasingly businesses are realising that the culture of their organisation is particularly relevant when it comes to deliver an exceptional customer experience. However, the challenge for many companies is how to work on their existing culture(s) to change behaviours and practices.
It is refreshing to read Leading the Customer Experience, a manual that not only helps you to reflect on the culture you are currently operating but also to take concrete actions. As Cook puts it: “if you don’t understand and manage culture, it will manage you.”