Happy staff, happy customers? Yes, but it’s complicated

happy staff

Happy staff, happy customers? Yes, but it’s complicated

Happy staff, happy customers!
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This is heard so often it has become a cliché and a truism.
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Well it makes sense, doesn’t it? If staff are happy, they will be positive, engaging, nicer to deal with. They will take pride in their work, be interested in customers and have the energy to go the extra mile. They are engaged enough to innovate – to think up new ideas that will benefit customers.
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And as well as making sense, it’s backed up by research.  The Tempkin Group’s 2016 Employee Engagement Benchmark Study found that companies who excel in customer experience have one and a half times as many engaged employees as customer experience laggards. And Gallup found in their ‘State of the American Workplace’ that employees who are engaged are more likely to improve customer relationships, with a resulting 20% increase in sales.
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OK, so given the importance of customer experience, let’s invest in the employee experience. Let’s make our staff happy. Easy!  Simples!
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Except that it isn’t easy of course. Employees have never been less happy. Depending on which research you favour, between 50% and 85% of employees are disengaged, and it’s getting worse. Most people dislike their boss and/or are cynical about the direction or culture of the company and/or resent the way they are being managed. Maybe It’s to do with the fact that everyone is over-educated, self-directed, ambitious and just don’t fit with the necessary control and command of the modern workplaces. Maybe it’s because companies are hiring chess-players and using them as chess pieces.
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We know the answer isn’t pay (for most people). And it isn’t flexible working either. The answer lies higher up the Maslow pyramid and focuses on intrinsic rewards, valid recognition and job fulfillment – supported by a more enlightened approach to leadership and organisational behaviour.  How exactly all this can be delivered is still being debated, although personally I’m a fan of the work of Dr Richard Claydon – an organisational misbehaviouralist and expert in workplace irony.
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But back to customer experience.
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If increasing staff happiness, or even engagement, is so difficult should we change our focus?   Instead of trying to make everyone happy about their job in its entirety, let’s just try and make them happy about the customer-facing parts of it.
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Less than happy staff = unhappy customers?

If happy staff = happy customers, does it follow that unhappy staff lead to unhappy customers?
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It is of course possible to imagine an unhappy employee leading to a poor customer experience: surly attitude, lack of care, disrespectful communications etc.
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In reality, however, the link between unhappy staff and unhappy customers is much weaker.  Even unhappy staff are often happy and engaged when they are dealing with customers. The vast majority of disengaged staff are frustrated or demoralised, not vindictive.  It isn’t that they don’t care, it’s because they care too much.
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For many unhappy staff, dealing with customers is the best part of the job. It is an escape from the frustrations they have with managers and the internal organisation and a chance to actually do something of value for once.  Staff who are starved of either meaningful work or validation and recognition from their organisations will look for this validation from their work with customers.
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I was in this boat myself. Working for an organisation that not only overdid performance management but also did it incompetently and unprofessionally, I found validation and value in my direct dealings with customers. I actually quite liked many parts of my job (the customer-facing parts), but resented the organisation because it was getting in the way of me helping customers.  This is not a rare or unique experience: both job-leavers and experts in workplace engagement/organisational development report this as increasingly common.

Happy staff (when they are dealing with customers) = happy customers?

So whilst seeking to improve all employee engagement and happiness is of course a worthy and beneficial goal, organisations might consider first ensuring that staff are happy in their customer-facing roles and all their dealings with customers.  There are lots of things that can enhance the employee experience, but with a specific focus on customer experience, we would prioritise the following:
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  1. Big picture understanding  –  ensuring staff understand the importance of a great customer experience AND how they contribute to it
  2. Visible results – ensuring staff see the results of their customer-facing work and see or receive feedback direct from customers where possible
  3. Personal confidence  – ensuring staff feel confident in all their customer-facing work, with support through training and coaching being provided as required to build both skills and positive mindsets
  4. Autonomy and flexibility – ensuring staff have the freedom and authority to do what needs to be done to deliver a great customer experience
  5. Psychologically safe workplace – ensuring staff feel safe in their customer-facing work, free from any psychological harm that might come from customers, colleagues, management or others.
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CX Training is a Brisbane-based provider of tailored training solutions throughout Australia, specialising in customer experience, customer service, sales, employee experience and related areas.
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