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Employee engagement & customer loyalty: an interview with Paul Hebert

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Employee engagement & customer loyalty: an interview with Paul Hebert
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In the February issue of Direct Marketing, the feature story Fickle About Loyalty highlights how customer behavior is continuing to evolve, demanding how marketers must alter their thinking about how to create customer loyalty. You can read the article here on your own and I recommend the publication as one of my favorites. Editor Ginger Conlon has long tenure in direct and data-driven marketing and has a knack for assembling solid content centered on timely topics each month.

The article begins with an affirmation that loyalty programs work, citing a 640% increase in revenue experienced by System Pavers, a company that sells hardscape products and services. This whopping success was achieved, but not through a traditionally structured loyalty program. Instead of points, miles, punch cards, or discounts, System Pavers employed a content marketing strategy that brought valuable information to its readers and built trust and relationships over time.

Of the three areas that the article proposes as key areas of study to create successful loyalty programs in this age of the digital customre, the part of the article that caught my attention was the statement that customers may not be “the only stakeholders to focus on when the goal is to improve customer loyalty”. Guess who might be your most important group of constituents who need to be stitched tightly into your customer loyalty strategy?

How about your Employees?

The Enterprise Engagement Alliance (EEA) was created to stimulate and develop systemic engagement across organizations. One of the key areas of attention given by the group is towards employee engagement, the importance of which is illustrated by results of a Gallup study, reported by EEA here, which showed only 30% of U.S. workers employed full or part time are engaged in their work and workplace, while approximately half are not engaged. To top it off, the study found that nearly one in five are actively disengaged.

Think about this in terms of how your company might go about communicating the benefits of its loyalty program, or any other promotional program for that matter. When asked by a store associate, cashier, or salesperson if I’d like to join their rewards program, I habitually ask them “what’s it about”, “how does it work”, and if it’s “worth joining”. The range of responses go from a shoulder shrug accompanied by a “whatever” reply to enthusiasm that makes me feel like I’m about to take advantage of a great opportunity.

It’s easier said than done to expect front-line personnel in a business to be enthusiastic promoters of the business itself. The starting point in this expectation does not bode well for success. Generally speaking, the front-line persons employed are in the lowest pay bands and many feel that they are being manipulated by reduced hours, inconvenient schedules. Taking advantage of company benefits is elusive for many hourly workers today.  With the feeling like the boss has them at the end of a firm “straight arm” that Marshawn Lynch would be proud of, it’s no surprise that high turnover is the norm for retailers of all types.

I wanted to learn more about how employee engagement can be increased in practical ways, so I turned to Paul Hebert, a lead consultant with Symbolist and an expert in the behavioral arts and employee engagement.

Interview with Paul Hebert – Part I

Bill: What level of engagement should business be shooting for? Is there an optimal percentage of engaged employees that make or break a business?

Paul: First of all let’s at least agree that 100% engagement is a fool’s objective.  That will never happen.  What number is good?  I don’t know – and no else does either.  It is probably a good idea to begin measuring – with whatever tool you find helpful – and then start working to move the needle.  The goal is continuous improvement – not a specific number.

Too often we say we want “50% engagement” 0r 70% engagement” – I don’t know if that is even possible.  What I do know is we can always improve and that should be the goal.  As far as things that are hard for businesses to “cure” – low pay, high turnover, etc.,  I think we have to understand the differences between what causes engagement – and what prevents disengagement.  Those are two very different things.

Bill: Many of the causes of employee “dis-engagement” are hard for a business to cure; low pay, high turnover, etc. What practical means can a business use to better engage its employees?

Paul: Think of it this way – if you have an underlying problem – say diabetes – it probably makes sense to get that fixed before you worry about “getting in shape for a triathlon.  From the company perspective it means to fix the things causing disengagement before worrying about engagement.  Are you pay practices in line with the industry in general?  Are your benefits also in the ballpark with your industry (and don’t forget firms in your general geographic area that could be options for your current employees).

I’d suggest turnover is a symptom of disengagement, not a cause, but the cause may be poor management practices, pay/benefits (which we mentioned) environmental i.e. do you make people work in a cube-farm on top of each other?  That can be as source of disengagement.

Bill: That said, how do you go about advising clients to improve their situation with employee engagement?

Paul: My first step with any client is to eliminate the causes of disengagement before trying to “engage” anyone.  Often that step is missing and therefore all the work that goes into “engagement” is for naught and everyone says “well that didn’t work” and they just stop making the effort.

After you’ve exercised your demons – now look for ways to engage.  The keys to engagement are pretty universal – but they manifest differently at each organization.  Don’t think you can put together a “zappos” program at a 100 year old manufacturing plant.  Not going to work.  But – if you focus on finding ways to:

  • Give employees input in their job structure and activity
  • Give employees some flexibly in “how” they accomplish and objective
  • Show progress in their jobs and their career
  • Transfer some responsibility for engagement to the employee – it’s really a 2-way street and if the company is making the effort – they need to as well.  It goes to the need to part of the solution.
  • Reward and recognize their contributions and make it visible in the organization.

There are plenty of other stuff you can do but these are the biggies.

Bill: That’s a great start. We’ll carry this conversation on in Part 2 in our next post.

Editor’s Note: If you want to get in touch with Paul, you can find him easily. Just choose your favorite channel:


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