Treating Employees as Customers

Consider this question: Whose needs must be met first for businesses to succeed – the shareholder, the employee or the customer?

For some people, the answer is clear cut, a no-brainer. Others will reply, “it depends” as the answer will be found in the most compelling case made by any of the three stakeholders. For me, the answer is obvious—it’s the employee. When it comes to creating the conditions for business success, the needs of the employee must always come first. Customers and shareholders ultimately benefit from the contribution of employees who either make or break the success of the business.

This way of thinking is quite similar to the philosophy of Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines, a company that was consistently successful while its competitors endured bankruptcies and losses. Building a strong corporate culture that emphasized good, fair treatment of employees and making work fun has been the hallmark of Kelleher’s tenure and legacy. Southwest employees are treated well. They love their jobs and it shows in the way they treat their customers.

Treating employees well leads to “greater discretionary effort” – another way of defining employee engagement. Greater discretionary effort means that employees go way beyond their job description. Gallup reported that 71% of American employees are not engaged in their jobs. The Canadian Human Resource Centre reported that 75% of employees in this country are not engaged. The Centre estimates that unhappy, disengaged employees cost the economy $350 billion annually in lost productivity. No one can deny that low employee engagement adversely impacts productivity, innovation and business success. It’s time for companies to think differently about the ways in which they can instill and nurture an engaged workforce.

A new way of thinking
What if employers were to treat employees as customers? This is an idea worthy of consideration. If a company found that 70% of its customers were not engaged or loyal to its brand, this would certainly be cause for alarm and action. The high level of disengagement would certainly not augur well for the future success of the company. The marketing department would be mandated to immediately gather customer feedback, identify and understand the underlying causes of disengagement and dissatisfaction. Steps would be taken to communicate and engage with customers, in ways that build understanding and trust. Resources would be found to remedy deficiencies in product quality and service delivery.

Yet this is not the case with employees.

If employers were to see their employees as customers, they would take a similar approach to redress the adverse results revealed from employee engagement surveys. Correctly applying marketing principles and models would positively impact the outcome of internal communications efforts, the ways in which training and organizational development needs are met and the design of benefits plans and compensation programmes.

Taking steps in the right direction
Finding out what employees think, their values, preferred communication channels and styles are essential components in the development and delivery of every kind of employee programme. The following suggestions on how employers may treat employees as customers are similar to the way in which successful companies uncover customer needs and respond to customer concerns.

  • Listen, act and measure. Survey employees often to uncover sources of satisfaction and challenge to the way they do their jobs. Take action to respond to survey results. Measure satisfaction and engagement and track year-over-year progress.
  • Segment and adapt. Identify demographic groups and treat each group as a market segment in the same way that marketing does with the organization’s clients. Segmentation should guide the format of various programs and initiatives – e.g. the use of
    internal communication channels, the range of options in benefits plans and socially responsible activities.
  • Treat employees as adults. Empower employees to make decisions that meet their needs – e.g. provide sufficient information to support the selection of options for their benefit and pension plans.
  • Communicate clearly and often. Provide access to communication channels that allow for open and transparent communication and ensure that any promised follow-up action is taken and communicated. Town hall style meetings with senior executives provide forums for explaining in-depth the reason for changes in policies and programmes that impact employees.
  • Give employees reasons to be loyal. For example, implement career development programmes and encourage learning and innovation. Keep employees informed about the role they play in the company’s success and reward fairly those whose contribution impacts the achievement of corporate goals.

This post was published on Your Workplace, 3 April 2013.

See the BIG picture.  Focus on what’s important.

Published by Camille Isaacs-Morell

Enabling businesses and people to be successful. This is my mission, my life’s work. It’s always been what I have done wherever I’ve been employed, called to serve or to volunteer. An experienced business leader, my core values are truth, integrity, and respect. I believe that values-based leadership is critical for organizational success that is enabled by an engaged and empowered workforce. Working over the years in several senior marketing, communications, and executive leadership mandates for global, financial, healthcare, and non-profit organizations, it has been through times of transformation and difficult change that I have done my best work. In my blog posts, I share my perspectives on leadership, marketing and strategy that are based on my key learnings and observations over the years, all with the objective of helping others reach for success. In my spare time, I enjoy the beauty of nature which I reproduce in my pastel paintings.

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