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Winning with Your Employees - It's All About Bob(bie)

I experienced the worst and best customer service experiences of my life from competing companies on the same day a few years ago. My widowed father's Alzheimer's disease had progressed to the point where he could no longer remain in an independent living apartment in his over-60 community. We made the decision to move him into a memory care unit. He would be safe, but no longer free to come and go. We were extremely anxious about this move, knowing that he would be unhappy about having his freedom curtailed.

In order to make his transition as easy as possible, we painted his room in familiar colors and decorated it with family pictures. Six weeks in advance of the move, I ordered a mattress set from a well-known national chain. The sales guy was great and absolutely guaranteed that the mattress would be delivered on time. Several days before the scheduled delivery, I got a call confirming the details. The night before, they called again to confirm the delivery details. Great customer service, right?

Except that thirty minutes before the mattress was due to be delivered, I got a call informing me that the delivery would be delayed - for about 5 days. Got the picture? Elderly parent with dementia, moving day, extreme emotional anxiety under any circumstances - and now Dad won't have a bed. Can we just buy a different bed? Nope. No inventory. My son, overhearing my phone conversation with the completely unhelpful mattress company employee, said, "That's the first time in my life I've heard you go to Defcon Five."

In desperation, I began calling alternative sellers in my area asking for a mattress set to be delivered within three hours. The first couple I spoke with were polite in offering their regrets, but not their help. I kept calling - and that's when the best customer experience of my life began. I recounted my story to "Bob," a sympathetic store manager. He told me to hang tight, and that he'd call me back within 30 minutes. Within fifteen minutes, he'd found a mattress set that could be delivered by 5 p.m. I thanked him for his efforts and reiterated that I needed it by 3 p.m. - the outside edge of when I could delay my Dad's move. I knew the minute he walked into a new setting he'd want to lay down on his bed, and no bed would mean utter confusion and agitation for him. Bob said he'd do his best. And he did. He found another mattress set and arranged for delivery before 3 p.m. Dad walked into a completely furnished apartment, his bed made with familiar bedding.

The most surprising thing of all? The store in question wasn't even the store that Bob usually managed. He was filling in for a coworker for the day.

Great organizations are defined by the extent to which their brand promise translates into the rewarding experiences that we have when we interact with them. Thinking about companies like Disney, Apple, The Container Store, and USAA make most of us reflect on positive experiences we've had there, experiences we'd like to have again - just like my Bob experience. When we encounter their brand message, we think "that's right" rather than "yeah, right."

How do they do it? They create cultures where employees are trained to succeed, rewarded for great customer service, and provided with opportunities to grow in their careers. Communication about the company vision and objectives is clear, frequent, and delivered through employee-friendly channels. They view their employees as key drivers of their success, not just fungible costs to be managed. When we interact with these organizations, we feel the difference.

In my role at Kronos, I am responsible for our voice of the customer program, listening for issues that diminish our customer satisfaction and then driving responses to those issues. I network with a lot of leaders of these programs at other companies. As Managing Director of the Workforce Institute, I'm regularly exposed to ideas about what makes a great place to work. What I've realized over time is that the companies with the greatest customer satisfaction are also highly likely to show up on "great place to work" lists. The organizations that hire, develop, and retain the Bobs of this world are the ones that outsell and out-service their competitors.

The most recent Gallup State of the Workplace survey tells us, though, that only 13% of employees are truly engaged in their jobs. As consumers, we're frequently disappointed by the quality of the goods we purchase and the poor customer service we receive from the vendors or service providers we encounter. Many organizations aren't meeting the needs of their customers or their workers. This same research shows that for-profit companies with highly engaged workforces outperform their competitors by 147% in earnings per share. So why isn't there a lot more focus among leaders on improving employee engagement?

Most employers want to hold on to their great employees and do right by their customers, but the economic pressures they face can get in the way. It's daunting to build a profitable organization that does right by its employees and its customers - but it's not impossible. From the smallest organizations to the largest, there are proven principles that can drive employee engagement, create happier customers, and enhance performance.

At Kronos, we developed a framework a few years ago to describe the continuum of employer attitudes and investments in their employees that we call the Workforce Maturity Curve. The Workforce Maturity Curve is a way to think about the continuum of employer attitudes toward their employees, as well as the incremental returns they gain as they increase their investment in their employees. Over the years, serving thousands of organizations worldwide, we've seen firsthand the success of our customers who invest in employees as a key driver of success vs. an expense to be managed. There are four recognizable evolutionary stages to this view of organizational maturity.

Phase 1: Standardize, Streamline & Simplify to Unburden Your Workforce
This is the first and foundational step on the path. The organization actively seeks to unburden their employees from inefficiency and low value tasks. They take the time to clearly articulate goals, streamline the processes that impact those goals, and automate low-value work so that their people can work on meaningful things. Policies are clear and consistently enforced. Accountability and auditability create a more democratic work environment.

Phase 2: Put the Best Team on the Field
At this stage of maturity, organizations are hiring the candidates who are most likely to be successful in the job based on their skills, experience and culture fit. In hourly environments, they are scheduling people based on business needs and employee skills and preferences. They incorporate their human resource needs into their strategic planning - identifying the people skills required for success in the short and the long term.

Phase 3: Help Your People Do Their Best Every Day
This stage is about creating a truly engaged workforce, one filled with the kind of people who'll go the extra mile to achieve your organization's objectives. In his book Drive , Daniel Pink describes three key drivers of employee engagement:
1. Autonomy - the desire to direct our own lives.
2. Mastery -- the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
3. Purpose -- the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.
When these three drivers are aligned, your people know what the mission is, they know what to do to impact success, and it's meaningful to them when they are successful because they are recognized and rewarded.

Phase 4: Continuous Improvement and Innovation
The world around our organizations doesn't stand still. New challenges and opportunities can stress even the best organizations. And the best organizations understand that their people are their key sustainable competitive advantage. Money, assets, patents, brand, product, channels....all of that can be replicated with enough effort and money. Top talent who believe in your mission and are willing to do their best for you are irreplaceable.

This post is an excerpt from a book we are publishing in November titled It's All About Bob(bie) - Strategies for Winning with Your Employees.  If you follow this blog, you'll be the first to know when it's available.  In the meantime, what's your organization doing to engage and encourage your Bobs and Bobbies?

Cartoon courtesy of Tom Fishbourne

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