Empathy in Action

Is Good Employee Experience Necessary for Company Success?

29 Mar 2022

Two things are happening in today’s business world. Business and retail consumers are rapidly shifting the products and services that they use, and employees are taking a hard look at where they work, why they are there, and sometimes joining the “great resignation.” As a result, every industry is full of information, webinars and buzzwords around both Customer Experience and Employee experience. Are they both critical to success in the new economy, and is it possible for a company to successfully do one without the other?

A new book, Empathy In Action: How to Deliver Great Customer Experiences at Scale, declares that Customer and Employee experience are inseparable. Written by Tony Bates, the Chief Executive Officer at Genesys and Dr. Natalie Petouhoff, a Senior Customer Experience Strategist and Consultant at Genesys, the book is full of bold concepts. The book makes the strong case that empathy towards both customers and employees are critical to companies profits and long-term success; not just the “right thing to do”, but also the smart thing to do.

The plea to treat employees well is also not a new idea. Empathy in Action’s description of the industrial revolution reminded me of the words of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, written in 1843. Accompanied by the spirit of the past and observing the past, a period of apprenticeship and craftmanship, before the mass production of the UK’s factory system, Ebenezer Scrooge observes the joy and loyalty of the workers under Fezziwig, Scrooge’s own benevolent former employer.  

The spirit comments that Fezziwig has not spent more than a few British pounds for a party to deserve so much praise. “It isn’t that,” says Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter self – “it isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy, to make our service light or burdensome, a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks, in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’me up; what then? The happiness he gives is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol as an indictment of the extremes of wealth and poverty, industry and inability. Charles Dicken’s solution was to end the factory system, to return to the days of individual craftsmanship.

In reality, that reversal would be impossible. In the same way today, we cannot retreat from exponential technology capabilities that are driving rapid changes in every industry. Empathy in Action recognizes the history, that “The human cost of the Western Industrial Revolutions provides a stark example of what can happen when the human elements of life are neglected in favor of profit-centric business models...” while at the same time recognizing the considerable number of innovations that emerged from that time. Many companies that were successful in the industrial revolution, such as Carnegie Steel or Standard Oil, were beating back striking workers with one hand and building schools and hospitals with the other. Although there was a great human cost, that is not what prevented them from being overwhelmingly successful. They thrived with business centric model of highest production at lowest cost, and what finally conquered the giants was unionization and government forced divestiture. Empathy in Action makes the case that exponential technology now creates an unprecedented criticality to prioritize empathic employee experiences.

I agree that today is different, specifically due to technology. There are three areas that employee experience is just as critical as customer experience, and I tend to see this through the lens of technology and customer service. Since that’s where I work, and since Genesys is a customer experience company, it seems appropriate. The three areas of change apply just as easily to retail, delivery, repairs and a whole array of other services.

Area One: Customer Awareness includes Awareness of Employee Experience. This exponential exchange of information takes place in the form of websites, social media and streaming content. Consumers have lots of choices today, which creates the luxury of being socially conscious towards who they do business with and what they buy. News of poor working conditions for employees in a far-away factory travels quickly. Large enterprises and government alike issue policies forbidding business deals with companies accused of child or slave labor. Even Amazon, as its revenue hit $386 billion in 2020, faced a potential loss of customer trust after reports of substandard working conditions with high quotas, no work breaks and extended delivery routes. Ironically, all the pressure on employees was to benefit the customer, to receive products quickly and efficiently! Customer empathy without employee empathy eventually caught up. Without some correction, it would chip away at the consumer perception of Amazon.

With enterprise communications we think more about contact center customer service than warehouses and delivery. Even back until the 1990s, “call center” employees had a little mirror on their cubicles to make sure they were smiling when they answered the call. The theory was that smile could be “heard” by the customer. I propose that employee happiness is communicated to customers in more ways than just the tone of their voice. Otherwise, when they are on chat or email, who would care? Lack of organizational empathy towards employees can translate into less enthusiastic brand advocacy, less motivation towards solving complex problems for customers, and consciously or subconsciously relating the lack of empathy that they feel as an employee to customers.

Area Two: Employee loyalty is critical for the adoption of changes that will be necessary in an exponential business environment. Empathy in Action states that “Businesses must be able to change their business strategy and plans on a dime with rapidly changing market conditions.”  Change does not mix well with a disgruntled or insecure workforce. Employees can sabotage a change initiative, even with no bad intentions. In the early 2000s, I met with a CFO about a recommended telecom solution. I discussed the user interface and employee comfort with the system. He replied that employee comfort shouldn’t be a factor. If the company invested in it, employees just needed to use it, or else! My experience was not so new that I hadn’t already seen examples of technology failure when employees don’t buy into it. They don’t understand the purpose and they go on using the new system the same way they used the old ones. This creates a big waste of money, it fails to transform the business processes and fails to accomplish what the investment was meant to do.

In today’s economy, a change or investment is much more than just a phone system. It can be an entire way of doing business. Employees that do not feel heard may be critical and unwilling to adjust. As Empathy in Action states, the company response may be “My way, or the highway” but these same companies need to realize that now more than ever, the highway is a very viable option.

Area Three: Innovation and creativity require employees to experience empathy. In the early 2000s, companies took to calling employees “associates” to imply that every employee was an equally valuable partner in the company. I recall a bored young retail clerk telling me, “Just what’s on the shelves” with no eye contact as he sported a large “I’m a business partner” badge. “Every employee is an entrepreneur...a salesman…inventor,” etc. The subtle value of employee creativity is missing in these artificial labels and programs. It is at a micro-level. Empathy in Action describes this in a fresh way. If employees do not feel secure enough to communicate problems to people who are able to correct them, they may stop exerting the energy to even identify the problem. The sublet creativity is a problem-solving spirit, and being secure enough to take a risk. Going “above and beyond” for a customer without worrying about talk-time and restrictive policies.

The hard part is, how do you scale all of this? If we are honest, Large enterprises consist of a whole bunch of different people with different motives. There are good managers, tyrants, some trying to be their own little fiefdom, some are always looking for more budget, some try to save the company money at all costs. How do you scale empathy and employee experience in a company like this? It is one thing to be a small boutique company, known in a local region for its extravagant customer experience. It is one thing to be a mom-and-pop business that treats every employee “like family.” It is quite another to scale, and as Empathy in Action states, there’s no turning back from the exponential technology that has enabled innovation and disruption over the last decade. We live in an age where there’s only room for one brick and mortar bookstore chain in the entire country (for people like me who still read paper books rather than 100% digital content). Howard Schultz of Starbucks spoke about the company growth, how “the entrepreneurs and the creative people are subordinated by the MBAs…We’d lost the soul of the company.”

Empathy in Action declares that there needs to be a complete cultural shift. It cannot be done as just a one-year program, or only for the customer service/contact center departments. It must include the finance division, even investors, which means it must be measurable. What the book labels as employees that are either “Force multipliers” or “bomb throwers” both need to believe that this change is going to be permanent. Steps to successfully pivot include:

  • “Allocate resources for an organizational change management plan to drive accountability, mindset, and behavior change and to hit key business milestones while keeping morale high.”
  • “Execute a full scale, continuous communication and education plan to include progress updates and results and to provide rewards and recognition for those supporting the change.”
  • “Understand that browbeating employees with what to do is ineffective because it takes eight hours or more to recover physically and psychologically. “

Exponential technology creates both the opportunity and the solution. I am wary of a lot of initiatives involving exponential technology. I do not worry about it replacing humans with superior skills. Humans can switch context in a way that a simple formula of more data and faster machines cannot replicate. What I fear is that it will be “just good enough,” replacing humans with an inferior experience, a modern-day return to the business centric highest productivity at lowest cost. Companies may invest in self-service just to reduce headcount, and if the system gets 80-85% of the transactions right, well, that’s “good enough.” I am wary of employee performance being measured not just by talk time, first call resolution, and other metrics with which we are familiar. What if exponential technology is weaponized to measure employees on their voice tone, the vocabulary they use, and a whole litany of other things that could not be measured and analyzed in the past? For this reason, I celebrate Empathy in Action’s compelling case for exponential technology, because it is designed around customer and employee experience rather than sacrificing either.



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