Masters Alliance Why Do Employees Work Harder For Customers Than the Boss?

Work Harder for Customers Than the Boss? Really?

by J Allen | Originally Published Feb 14, 2017


What if I told you that you may have been wrong about the true connection between employee engagement and great customer service? Consider this idea: Your team wants to deliver great customer service, but YOU and your leaders might be the ones who are stopping it from happening.

Not only that, there’s a good chance that employees just might be more motivated to work harder for their customers than working harder for you!

If you can’t see the possibility of these statements being true, I’d suggest you go back to reading some other articles that agree with your current Customer Service mindset. But, if you can – for just a minute- imagine a scenario where you might be the roadblock to a higher customer satisfaction ratings, then keep reading.

Happy Employees  Customer Service

First, let’s agree that there are reams of research that demonstrate there is a connection between engaged, or happy employees and higher customer service levels. We certainly know the inverse is true – unhappy employees can destroy a customer’s loyalty for your product or service in a single contact. Most of the research available to us as business leaders helps support the following hypothesis:

  1. Engaged employees deliver better customer service.
  2. Better customer service means increased customer loyalty and sales.
  3. Therefore, leadership investment in improved employee engagement leads to better customer service, which yields improved sales and bottom line results.

It’s a fair argument – one that has been endorsed and instilled into company cultures for years. But what if that is not the real story? What if the logic is missing something? Before you assume that I’m saying that we shouldn’t invest in employee engagement, please don’t jump to that conclusion. I’m a firm believer in making authentic and meaningful investments to increase employee’s sense of significance and thus fulfillment at work. However, traditional investments in training, recognition, rewards and special events are diminished when the employee’s day to day job in helping improve the customer experience is harder than it has to be.

The Reality

Still don’t believe it? Think of it this way – If you ask any customer-facing employee about what gives them energy, or what their “best day” looks like, they’ll likely to respond that they had a great experience with a customer [rather than reporting about an interaction with their supervisor]. If you ask the same question of non-customer facing support staff regarding any great days they experienced, they’ll talk about the positive customer experiences reported back to them from their customer facing colleagues.

Maybe it comes in the form of delivering an innovative solution for a unique problem, delivering a great value add feature, or streamlining a process to improve the customer experience. Perhaps they “saved the day” for one of their customers. These experiences improve an employee’s level of excitement about their work, your company and your customers. The truth is that they enjoy having those moments of engagement more than getting attention from their manager or leader.

In other words, employees get more satisfaction from and will work harder for their customers than their managers.

If you are familiar with Gallup and their work, you probably know that one of the questions in the Q12 is “At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?”  For employees who are expected to interact with customers, coworkers and partners [most everyone], that translates to providing service to customers. Favorable responses on this survey item correlate to higher employee engagement. You can make the connection between the extremely well validated and researched Gallup methodology and the premise of this article – employees will work harder for the customer than for their bosses.

What You Can Do…

Let’s say that you believe in that premise – now what? How can you capitalize on that knowledge and do something with it? Your main accountability as a leader is to remove barriers (perceived and real) from your team delivering great service. Masters Alliance has worked with more than 120 clients in over 20 industries on this very issue – and here are a few tips from our work that have provided actual results for their clients:

Here’s a simple, yet very revealing exercise for your leadership team:

  1. In your next leadership meeting assess your team’s level of agreement on your primary customer focus.

Ask everyone to pull out a sheet of paper and individually list your top 10 customers or customer groupings [no coaching or discussion]. Compare the answers. We have yet to see sufficient agreement in any team. What are the implications of that?

Next ask you leadership team to honestly assess how they think your company is serving your customers. On another sheet of paper write down their score to the following question: On a scale, of 1-10 (10 being excellent and 1 being poor), how are we doing providing service to our customers. Don’t give them time to discuss, debate, or ponder – you want their flash reaction. Then, as with scoring in the Olympics, have them hold up their scores – no explanation, qualifiers, “yes-but” allowed. Ask someone to record the scores of the group so that everyone can see them. Are you astonished at the average, or the range? Is it reflective of the NPS/Customer Satisfaction ranking that you report to your Board of Directors? Do you think the scores represent reality?

Then without debating the results – ask you leaders to rate three simple statements on a scale of 1-5:

  • How important is that we put effort into improving this?
  • How much have I personally done recently to make a positive impact on this?
  • Am I personally willing to make changes to improve this?

Once again – have them flash their scores for all to see. This exercise helps you see what kind of alignment exists on your team, where your gaps are, and suggest how much time you need to spend on removing barriers to good service.

  1. Start conversations with customer facing employees and get ready to listen.

We aren’t talking about commissioning a survey, or outsourcing a focus group. Instead, get up from your comfy corner office chair and go and TALK to your employees! Tom Peters popularized the idea of “Management by Wandering Around” in the early 1980’s. When Masters Alliance works with clients, we ask them to take a serious look at how their leaders (including the top of the house) interact with employees.

Do you make a habit of walking the sales floor and production area or stay on the executive floor? Do you eat lunch in the cafeteria or go out for lunch? Do you “make appearances” or have authentic interactions? Do you ask “How’s it going?” or “Can you tell me more about your customer and their needs?” When employees start talking, is it clear that you are really listening?

It’s easy to do – you just need to find a small group of employees and start talking! Here are some great questions to get the conversation going:

  1. How does your work impact external or internal customers?
  2. Tell me about the best customer interaction you had this week.
  3. Tell me about your worst – What stopped you from making that customer truly happy?
  4. If you could change one thing about our policies that impact how we serve customers, what would it be?
  5. What would make your work here more significant?

Or, be impromptu with your conversation. Whatever you choose, it needs to allow you to go beyond your typical management drop-in and “smile and nod” interaction [although that is still important]. If you listen with an open heart and mind, you’ll see that the rewards are vast. In fact, if you keep that pipeline of communication open, you will start to hear trends that translate to real opportunities – in the form of sales, cost savings and impact to your bottom line – and ways to positively impact customers!

  1. Dedicate time, energy and resources to removing barriers that prevent your team from doing their best job every day.

Now that you have the gift of a reality check from your leadership team and employees, you must take action on what you learned. If you simply acknowledge that you have this data and do nothing with it, you will be guilty of “lip service” and lose further ground in engagement. Your team has trusted you with their honesty, don’t squander it!

How do you do that? Don’t assign it to someone else, or appoint a “Barrier Removal Czar.” Keep this topic and the effort alive by including it in your team meeting agendas, reward and recognize team members who take action to remove barriers, tell their stories to your stakeholders. Personally sponsor and remain involved with a skunk-works team to activate on the ideas with the biggest impacts and remove barriers they encounter. Be willing to drive decision making down in the organization so that those closest to the customer are able to provide great service. Trust your front line people to make judgment calls when faced with a problem that needs a creative solution! I promise they won’t “give away the store” – both literally and figuratively.

What’s the Result?

You’ll start to see happier, more fulfilled employees. Not because you bought lunch for the team, gave them branded coffee cups, hosted a team building session or even awarded them with an extra vacation day. It’s because you have removed the barriers to them doing the best job they can do every day. You’ve stepped out of their path to excellence!

If you still think it’s not possible to connect most all work to customers, let’s take a closer look. Christian, Central European CEO of a large international software client, challenged Masters Alliance to link the firms Accounts Payable group to customers. So…in one of the next phases of the firms “Fast Track” teams, we identified a team as “A/P for Customer Benefit.” The team was configured with people from the A/P and customer facing/ connected groups. This focus required the team to dig into all customer segments. In order to connect A/P to the customer they needed to understand customers [not just the CFO’s important, sound business directive to maximize cash flow].

The discovery: It became obvious to the A/P Group in the team that improving supplier performance would have a definite impact on the firm’s ability to provide competitive advantages in the customer experience. Considering the economic conditions at the time, the A/P team determined that cash flow was more important to suppliers than to their own firm and that higher supplier standards could be gained by the incentive of earlier invoice payments.

It worked! They transformed the A/P process for suppliers reaching performance standard improvements, paying their invoices within 24 hours through electronic funds transfer. Bottom line…they “smoked” the competition in several customer service standards! It wasn’t all bad for us either. We were also paid within 24 hours. Talk about a win-win!

We Can Help

Masters Alliance can help bring these tips to life with your organization – we provide tools and framework to help your team think and lead differently. We’ve helped dozens of our clients implement this new way of thinking in their organizations.

Masters Alliance is a 30-year strategic management consulting firm that has helped more than 120 client organizations in over 20 industries in 13 countries gain a competitive advantage in their market. We help organizations develop and implement unique business strategies that work – faster than our clients ever thought possible.

We help clients achieve significant performance gains from a breakthrough understanding of their customers / patients / clients and markets.

Will you be the next to start on the journey? I hope so!