Treat your employees as if they were customers

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One of the main challenges of digital transformation is aligning the internal and the external side, or, to be more specific, to make the one inspire the other and the other support the one. Besides that, facing new employee expectations caused by the evolution and digitization of society, I see many organizations being doubtful about how far they should go and saying “we’re sick of employees behaving like customers”.

If I think some limits should be put to what is nothing else than consumerization of work, I think they’re wrong to blame employees that behave this way.

Businesses need exemplary models and digital symmetry

I’ve already said a lot about this when I wrote about employee experience and digital workplace experience : if employees are not exposed to the experience promised to the customer they won’t be able to deliver it, to think and act accordingly. It’s as simple as that : people can’t duplicate something that is only a concept to them and that they have never seen at work or experienced. That’s common sense.

It’s also about employee engagement. If all the energy, attention and means go to customer and employees have to do with the very little left, when employees are not provided with the means to keep the promise made to the customer, a divide appears which may lead to disengagement. Employees don’t want to be be the poor relative of the enterprise anymore.

Employees are their company’s customers for three reasons.

Like it or not, the employer-employee relationship has deeply evolved over the last years it’s even going to accelerate. When we’re told that, in tomorrow’s digital and uberized economy, works become “on-demand”, a commodity, contingent, employees know that they will not only change employers more often but that they will have to work many employers at the same time and be “activated” only when needed. Work will be a matter of tasks, not a matter of time. Aware that they’re becoming a service one activates, deactivate, consume and get rid of, employees have a more consumerist approach to work. They know that everything can stop tomorrow so they try to make the most of each deal.

As paradoxical as it may seem after the previous paragraph, employees are only looking for sense, for something meaningful, for a vision, for something to stand for. A project and a vision must be sold to them, explained, they must be seduced and convinced. If not, the company will got a workforce, arms, legs but not engagement.

We’re all our colleague’s clients

Employees are customers for another reason : one is one’s colleagues’ client. That’s a major point when it comes to organizational issues since organizations will have to be innovative and responsive, adopt a flatter and more flexible structure to keep the promise made to the customer.

In this context what most businesses are failing at is adhoc collaboration : when people should collaborated not because they’re in the context of something structured but because they adopt an opportunistic behavior and try to tap into the corporate expertise to solve a problem or get feedback. It rarely works because of strict resource allocation killing collaboration while collaboration should be a service anyone offers to his colleagues. That’s a matter of posture and vision of work : people don’t see their colleagues as internal clients and that causes blocking situations. This is true between colleagues but also between support functions and employees.

Customers buy with money, employees buy with engagement

I often hear that there’s a difference between employees and customers : the ones buy, the others don’t. And that justifies the difference of treatment. The one must be seduced because he buys, the other is paid, is subordinated so the only thing he has to do what he’s asked to.

It’s wrong. Or not as true as it used to. On an assembly lines in the 50s or earlier, why not. The only thing people had to do was to endlessly repeat the same movement at a fixed pace. Today, as most of work is knowledge work, the main factor of quality and productiviy is not labour force but engagement. Engagement makes people spend more time to get something done. Engagement makes people think out the box to find a solution instead of putting up with events and say “it’s too complicated”, “it’s not my job to go this far”, “that’s not possible”. Employee engagement is what makes customer experience work at the human touchpoints.

If customers buy the promise of the enterprise with money, employees buy it with engagement. Customers don’t buy a product when they’re told “it’s how it is, shut up and pay”. It’s the same with employees, they need something more.

Digital transformation is a product and must come with a promise

Digital transformation is a big change. For the customer and the employee. But if the first is supposed to experience the positive effects only and not to play in part in the change process, it’s the opposite for employees that are supposed to experience the upsides (no customer experience without employee experience) but will also have to do with the downsides. Change always require an effort, comes with fears and uncertainties and, in the end, pains, no matter how short the transitory phase is.

A few months ago I had a long discussion with the people in charge of an ambitious internal digital transformation project that seems to go worse and worse over years. Many expectations are deceived, people are less and less engaged and, in the end, employees are more and more in defiance of the program.

I won’t even mention that there is nothing about the impact on the customer in the program. Self-focused change often goes around in circles and there is one more evidence here. No sign of an impact on the customer, so sense of urgency. What should happen happened.

“Even if there’s no promise made to the customer that can be used to mobilize employees, maybe there’s a promise made to employees who are asked to change ? “. Surprised glances. Why a promise ? The world is changing, we’re adapting and there’s nothing more to say ! Not that obvious. Even when the why is obvious, employee need an individual benefit. There was one is this case but it was not formalized, not made explicit, so leader were unable to sell it.

Towards a change marketing

Customers buy with money, based on a promise. That’s the same for employees buying with engagement, provided the promise exists.

With regards to change management, there’s a focus on training and communication but as employee behaviors are getting consumerized, maybe we need to go further and think about change marketing. A change project must be the response to an actual need, create a positive experience, have a brand and a promise.

The idea is promising but two major limits. The first is about means. Businesses can’t afford to market internal projects the way they do things for customers. That’s true but that’s a pity because it internal change don’t happen, the price to pay will be high on the customer side. The second is about a propensity to consider change as a noble matter while marketing is seen as a mercantile one. This is a mistake we should get rid of as soon as possible : when we see what such approaches make possible in less skittish cultures, it’s easy to realize that massive change marketing does solve everything but is helpful to set the company in motion. Provided the “product” deserves it. If I were CHRO I’d try – at least once – to get support from the marketing department just to see what they could offer.

Employees are not totally like customers

I admit that this approach has limits. The first – and not the least – is that employees have finally no choice. There is a relationship of subordination that makes that, in the end, they’ll have to do with what they’re given and comply with the rules. There are also legal constraints that make the employer-employee relationship different from the enterprise-customer one. Another difference is that the connected and social customer is an individual trying to satisfy a personal need while employees are members of a collective. Last one : customers are revenue and employees are costs. At least it’s how they’re seen.

All these elements would suggest that treating employees the old way is right since there are specific constraints and employees have no choice. But maybe it’s because they have no choice that businesses often did as little as possible for them, not spending time to make things meaningful and acceptable, with the impact we all know on engagement today.

A survey conducted at recent event on customer relationship strategies in Paris showed that only 53% of attendees thought that employee satisfaction was as important as customer’s (link in french). Long is the road.

Photo Credit : Happy employee by Olivier Le Moal via shutterstock