By: Sam Herzing
Focusing on employees and focusing on customers are not mutually exclusive - they're highly synergistic.
As workforce leaders shift from responding to crisis to embracing an unprecedented era of change with no end in sight, companies are recognizing the need to adapt swiftly, yet strategically. Employers of all sizes and industries are going beyond “I hope this email finds you well” to actively seeking ways to treat their employees with empathy while delivering on their changing needs. Put another way, they’re treating employees with the same rigor and priority that’s usually reserved for their customers.
Upon first glance, this seems like a stark turn in direction for organizations grounded in customer centricity. But focusing on employees and focusing on customers are not mutually exclusive—they’re highly synergistic. In theory, the same playbook that successful employee experience (EX) strategies are now embracing can, and will, create stronger customer experiences (CX) as well. Recognizing and rewarding employees for the empathy they show your customers will not only endear you to your employees, but will also captivate customers who, more than ever, see themselves in the very people who serve them.
To exemplify what we mean, we look at three highly adaptive companies and the moves they made to engage and empower their employees:
Empower Employee-Customer Relationships
Never before have the many forms of labor that underpin the global economy received as much attention, interest, and scrutiny as during the COVID-19 pandemic. Activities that are usually back-office operations for organizations—providing safe working conditions, optimizing pay and leave policies—are suddenly elevated beyond human resources to become a major reflection on brands themselves.
The best responses to COVID-19 show that not only can company policies influence brand perceptions; so too can individual interactions between frontline employees and customers. Employees are finding profound meaning in the service of customers during trying times, and employers who encourage and empower their employees reap the brand benefits.
At Zappos, for example, the idea for a “Customer Service for Anything” hotline emerged from an internal entrepreneurial thinking initiative. The hotline leverages customer service representatives to help people feel less alone or find answers to questions ranging from Netflix recommendations, to grocery store inventory, to local restaurant delivery. The buzz from the service even reached a medical professional, who was able to leverage Zappos customer support to research and procure dwindling medical supplies.
How you can too: Encourage employees to step outside of their traditional roles to take action to resolve issues that they have unique visibility to. Empower managers to reward the behavior through authentic actions that go beyond “employee of the month” programs.
Find Authenticity in Your Purpose
In times of crisis and uncertainty, companies usually guided solely by the bottom line find themselves lacking a clear North Star. Without an idea of the longevity or scale of COVID-19’s impact, it can be difficult for employees to make decisions in the best interest of the company. For businesses that are driven by their corporate purpose, however, the crisis offers opportunity to mobilize employees toward a common goal and to drive engagement through visible impact of their work.
Leesa, a direct-to-consumer mattress company, lives their purpose as “a mattress made for good” by maintaining the environmental and social standards of a B Corp, as well as donating a mattress to a child in need for every 10 sold. Upon learning of the significant need for hospital beds during the pandemic, they took their typically nine-month product launch time down to a matter of weeks in order to create a hospital bed kit for COVID-19 patients. While the retail implications to Leesa’s core business have led them to reduce employee salaries by 20%, they are still driving employee engagement through their purpose.
How you can too: Rally employees around a common goal, allocate them hours to contribute to the cause, and let them experience the fruits of their labor in their community. Closing the loop on the customer experience it creates will likely prompt further opportunities to “do the right thing” by their customers.
Let Listening Drive Innovation
The speed and scale of the pandemic has circumvented traditional innovation processes in many large companies, and typically for the better. Organizations have employed more of a design thinking approach to change, piloting initiatives in direct response to what they are hearing and seeing from their employees and customers.
Hasty transitions to remote work have exposed the vulnerabilities of companies who have not embraced digital-first mindsets. The speed of transition, however, has been helped in businesses where employees have been a part of problem identification and solution development. Companies like Facebook have even provided monetary support to individual employees to set up their home offices and procure the tools they need to be successful.
Across industries, the transition from in-person to online has not been one that only impacts the employee population, but every facet of operations. Lin Qingxuan, a Chinese cosmetics company, was forced to close all its locations in Wuhan in the early days of COVID-19’s spread. Facing a 90% sales decline, they leveraged employee and customer insights to develop a business model that met people where they were. They redeployed their beauty advisers as online influencers, engaging customers virtually via WeChat and DingTalk. During livestream shopping events, one adviser’s sales in just two hours equaled that of four retail stores.
How you can too: Encourage and incentivize invention. Adopt a mindset of continuous innovation and offer parachutes to people whose ideas may not take flight the first time around.
Treat Employees Like the Stakeholders They Are
Companies that find opportunity in crisis elevate their employees as stakeholders and respond as empathetically to their ideas as they do their concerns. As they do so, they are creating the kinds of brands that we know resonate strongly with customers—the kind you experience an individual connection to, that make you feel a part of something bigger, and that consider the humans at the center of their operations.
As companies navigate the easing of restrictions, they would do well to continue to elevate their employee stakeholders alongside their customers. The “new normal,” murky as it may be, must be one in which the connections between engaged employees and delighted customers are both magnified and celebrated.
As published on Gongos.
About the authors: Sam Herzing
Strategy & Implementation Lead, Gongos, Inc.
As a lead in Gongos’ Strategy & Implementation practice, Sam partners with client organizations to align cross-functional teams on a shared vision and path to success on complex business challenges. Her passion for the art and science of empathy in business is at the core of her audience-centric approach to effectively managing change. She works alongside client teams to navigate interorganizational dynamics, crafting clear communications that drive lasting impact. Her B.A. in Marketing is from Michigan State University where she acted as a Research Assistant and member of MSU Students Consulting for Non-Profit Organizations.