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Don't Ask Your Manager!

Today's post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member, Natalie Bickford, Group HR Director at Merlin Entertainments. Here she discusses the power of "Don't ask your manager" to unleash your frontline employees ability to provide a great customer experience.

As I'm working day-to-day trying to figure out how to best motivate and engage employees, I am often reminded of Frederick Herzberg's “Two Factor Theory”. Developed way back in 1959, Herzberg's theory posits that there are certain factors in the workplace that cause job satisfaction while a separate set of factors cause dissatisfaction, all of which act independently of each other.

A key way to drive employee engagement is through giving each team member as much responsibility as possible. Yes, of course pay, working conditions and respectful management (Herzberg would call these “hygiene factors”) are important in the avoidance of dissatisfaction, but if you really want your people to go the extra mile, you must recognize their contribution and give them as much decision making authority and accountability as possible (“motivation factors” in Herzberg's theory).

This scenario is easy to imagine within an office-based, professional workforce environment, but how can this work in a world of hourly paid, consumer-facing employees? Finding a solution to this can make a significant difference to the consumer experience in environments where the lowest paid workers are the ones delivering the customer experience on a daily basis - think retail, hospitality, casual dining, and even to some degree airlines. We absolutely know from the service-profit chain model that a clear connection exists between high profits, customer loyalty and employee productivity and satisfaction. 

At the Pret a Manger sandwich chain, existing team members are made accountable for the selection of new team members. Short-listed candidates work for a paid day in the store, and at the end of the shift the team decides who fits the company culture best. By empowering the team to make hiring decisions, the whole team feels jointly accountable for the financial performance and guest experience in their outlet. At Pret, teams are also encouraged to hand out free coffees and baked goods on a Friday to improve the consumer experience and drive loyalty. 

Within a number of my employer, Merlin Entertainments', visitor attractions, guest hosts are empowered to give special gifts to guests of their choosing, including ride fast-passes, snacks, retail merchandise and free entry tickets. There is no direct benefit to the employee other than the opportunity to make someone's day. As a result, however, employee engagement within those attractions has ticked up.

Organizations that push accountability to the front line know that employees will step up and grab it.  Little things like being allowed to make decisions about replacing a dropped ice cream for a crying child, refunding an elderly gentleman who has purchased the wrong charging cable, pulling a disabled guest to the front of a queue - all make employees feel valued and responsible for business outcomes.

Southwest Airlines defied all odds in the post 9/11 impact on the domestic US airline industry, remaining profitable and holding its' ranking in Fortune magazine's “Most Admired Companies” list.  A major contributing factor to this was Southwest Airlines' obsessive protection of their desire to do the right thing by their passengers, actively supported by the accountability given their ground staff and crew to do just that.

We would all benefit from taking a cold hard look at our employee handbooks and regulations, and asking ourselves which rules and processes can we strip away, and how can we put more power into the hands of our staff? Organizations are very good at adding processes and policies but not very adept at stripping them back. My preferred way to consider this is by standing in the shoes of my guests and thinking about what I would want to see from the people who are delivering the guest experience to me. One of my most hated responses as a customer is “I'm sorry, but I will have to ask my manager…!”

What about you? Have you been wowed by great customer service somewhere lately? What's the phrase you can't stand to hear from a customer service person? Tell us about it in the comments section!

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