Guest blogging for CX Innovation & Tech Fest: Who is more important the employee or the customer?

By September 21, 2018 February 5th, 2019 No Comments

Customer experience is a relatively new field of work. In many ways, it is still evolving and taking shape before our eyes. As such, CX professionals have both the opportunity and the obligation to continue learning. Pearls of wisdom can come from unexpected places, and no matter how much of an expert you think you are, those who are closest to the customer can still teach us poignant (and sometimes humbling) lessons that help us reframe our evolving field of work.

I recently had one such experience. I was collaborating with a client on strategies to improve their customer journey delivery, when, during one of our stakeholder workshops, a front-line team manager asked: “we have a customer retention department, but why don’t we have an employee retention department?” It was a rhetorical question, but the point was crystal clear, and she was right. The proverbial mic had been dropped.

The room remained silent for a few moments as we all reflected on the simple, yet powerful, truth that this customer-facing team member had highlighted. The business was focused on the customer, but was it looking after those who served the customer? If not, what did that say about the business? Had the organisation turned its back on the brand values?

CX and EX
Employee experience has become a hot topic within the CX professional community, and with good reason. Many organisations leverage employee engagement to foster customer-centricity. Yes, it’s important to create employee awareness about customer wants and needs. But if the employees don’t feel like they are respected or appreciated by the business, then messages encouraging them to prioritise the needs of customers will land like a ton of bricks.

A broader focus is needed
CX practitioners are often tasked with being the agents of customer-centric change. The pressure is always on to show results and demonstrate business value. Before launching a customer-experience related employee engagement campaign, CX practitioners should reach out to their colleagues in HR and understand the current climate with regard to employee sentiment. If morale is low, perhaps CX engagement efforts can double up as employee experience (EX) efforts to address sentiment.

Moral-lifting campaigns can be an effective immediate course of action, but organisations shouldn’t neglect the underlying issues that led to negative employee sentiment in the first place. The drivers of team member unhappiness can be complex and difficult to tackle, but if an organization can crack this, it will lay the groundwork for improved customer experience in the long run.

Employees first?
The connection between happy employees and better customer experience is fairly logical. As businesses have recognised the direct link between employee engagement and the ability to deliver CX, it’s given rise to an “employee first, customer second” school of thought. Sir Richard Branson has famously said “Clients do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they will take care of the clients.” The motivation behind these words comes from the right place, but do we really need to choose to focus on employees over customers?

The prioritisation of one, suggests the de-prioritisation of the other, which might solve one set of challenges, but give rise to another.

A happy medium
Perhaps a middle ground is possible. Rather than elevating the needs of one stakeholder group over another, businesses should consider them as equally important. Airbnb has done this, and it’s been a key driver of their success.

When I interviewed Desirree Madison-Biggs, Airbnb’s head of CX, for my podcast last year, she spoke about how Airbnb is community-centric, not just customer-centric. In their case, Airbnb considers the key community groups to be: guests, hosts and employees. Each of their three executives has the mandate to advocate for the needs of the stakeholders within one of the community groups. This ensures that all stakeholder needs are integrated into strategic planning and goal-setting from the top. This approach also embeds a structure of checks-and-balances so that one stakeholder group isn’t prioritised over another.

The host/guest dynamic may be specific to Airbnb’s business model, but one could easily define a community-centric approach with stakeholder groups that are tailored for a different context. For example, a publicly listed B2C business might opt for customers, employees and shareholders as its stakeholder community groups.

Influencing change beyond the CX mandate
To make customer-centric evolution sustainable, businesses must elevate the needs of the customer, but put these on a level playing field with the needs of other key stakeholders, such as employees, investors and partners. Turning the concept of community-centricity into reality isn’t simple, and it may fall well outside of the realm of what we thought we were getting ourselves into when we chose CX as a profession, but as CX professionals, we are already primed with the right skills to this drive change too. Sometimes realising progress towards our long-term CX goals means leading the charge with innovative thinking to tackle broader business challenges.

This article was originally published on the Customer Experience and Innovation Techfest event blog in September 2018. Julia is a customer experience expert, based in South Africa. She will be moderating a CXPA panel discussion at the CX Innovation and Techfest event in November 2018. For more information about Julia’s customer workshop and speaking services, click here.


Julia Ahlfeldt

Author Julia Ahlfeldt

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