Empowered Employees Are the Best Customer Heroes

Employee Engagement
Employee Engagement
Book Excerpt: Companies that empower their staff are apt to deliver a superior customer experience.

"In a contest between a poetic blogger with a 12-week-old and a 67,000-employee, $17 billion multinational company, there's no content. The blogger won," write Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler in Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, and Transform Your Business. Bernoff and Schadler were referring to Dooce (aka, Heather Armstrong) and Whirlpool (Maytag's parent company); Armstrong used her blog and Twitter account to tell the story of the appalling service she received from Maytag when her brand new, $1,300 washer broke.

According to Bernoff and Schadler, companies can avoid this type of disaster by empowering their employees to be customer HEROes: "highly empowered and resourceful operatives." These employees are empowered because their companies are run so they can be, Bernoff and Schadler.

In this excerpt from Empowered, Bernoff and Schadler discuss the value of unleashing employees and give an example of Best Buy as a "HERO-powered business."

Unleash your employees

Here's what you can learn from the parable of Maytag.

Individuals like Heather now have incredible amounts of power over companies. And not only through social technologies like blogs. With their smartphones they can connect from anywhere, anytime. They've got video. They've got Google, Facebook, and a thousand Internet startups empowering them.

Your company is not and cannot be nimble enough to serve them. With your established processes and departmental boundaries, you move too slowly.

Only your employees can help. And only if you unleash them.

The same technologies that empower your customers are available to your employees. Right now, they're using Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia and getting ideas about how to help your business. Technology is cheap and easy now. In marketing, in sales, and yes, in customer support, your staff are not just interested in reaching out to customers. In fact, they're ready to build solutions, applications, and systems that will transform your business. The question is: will you let them? You must, and here's why:

To succeed with empowered customers, you must empower your employees to solve customer problems.

This is much harder than it sounds. It means your staff are going to be coming up with solutions on their own. The ideas don't come from management; management's new job is to support and empower employees. The technology doesn't come from the information technology department; IT's new job is to support and encourage employees. It's a complete inversion of the top-down way companies run. And it's the only way to thrive in the age of the empowered customer.

Before you decide this is impossible, we'd like to show you a real, large, successful company where it's working: the electronics retailer Best Buy. The Best Buy story sounds a lot like the Maytag story, but the difference is in the empowered employees and what they do for the business.

Case Study: Best Buy empowers its workforce

Josh Korin is a recruiter-his job is to help companies hire people.

Like thousands of other people, he bought an Apple iPhone at Best Buy in February 2009. Because Josh doesn't like downtime, he also bought Best Buy's $14.99-a-month Geek Squad Black Tie product protection plan.

When the iPhone conked out six months after he bought it, he was annoyed of course, but he also felt pretty smart for buying that protection plan. That is, until he went back to the local Best Buy store, where they offered him a BlackBerry as a loaner until the iPhone was fixed. Josh reread the protection plan agreement and decided what he was owed was another iPhone, not a substitute. The manager at the Best Buy wouldn't budge, though. So Josh began to exercise his voice as an empowered individual.

As soon as he got home on August 29, Josh Korin's 596 Twitter followers saw dozens of messages from a very angry man. Here are a few.

(The "@username" messages here are directed at a particular Twitter member,
while the # indicates a "hashtag" included to make tweets show up in searches on that term.)

Worst #customerservice ever? @bestbuy!! What's the point of Geek Squad phone insurance, if you replace an iPhone with a blackberry?

#geeksquad whats the deal with your iPhone protection plan? replace an iPhone with a BlackBerry, WTF?! @bestbuy honor your insurance plan!

@abril_dione do you have contact info for the CEO of #BestBuy? i am having a major customer service issue and I need to take it to the top!

@bestbuycmo can you please help me resolve #bestbuy customer service issue? Iphone died, have insurance wont replace/honor protection plan!

Despite these complaints, this did not blow up into a PR nightmare like Maytag's. Hemmed in on one side by Amazon and on the other by Wal-Mart, Best Buy can't sell electronics as just a commodity; service is its major differentiator. So the company has invested in service, including monitoring people with problems on Twitter-searching continuously for tweets that mention terms like bestbuy and geeksquad.

Even though Josh was tweeting his complaints on a Saturday, two things happened right away. One was that Best Buy's CMO, Barry Judge-one of the main supporters of Best Buy's Twitter response force-responded from his own Twitter account at @bestbuycmo. He saw Josh's tweet since it mentioned his Twitter user name.

And second, Coral Biegler stepped in. Coral is a "community connector"-her job is to monitor Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other forms of social communication for problems just like this. And she (@coral_bestbuy) immediately responded with this message:

@joshkorin I understand this is frustrating, thanks for patience . . .

I will be in office tomorrow to research & respond #twelpforce

This message is directed to Josh, but the tag "#twelpforce" indicates that it comes from Best Buy's Twitter Help Force. The Twelpforce includes both dedicated employees like Coral and members of Best Buy's blue-shirted floor sales team and Geek Squad service representatives.

If you include "#twelpforce" in your tweets, any one of twenty-five hundred Best Buy employees who have signed up with Twelpforce could respond and try to help you out. They do it over a hundred times every day. (Check it out: go to http://twitter.com/twelpforce and you'll see all the responses.)

Of course, Twelpforce didn't just spontaneously spring into being.

Two of the social technology veterans at Best Buy, Gary Koelling and Steve Bendt, helped conceive it with support and encouragement from Barry Judge. A technology wiz in the eCommerce group, Ben Hedrington, invented the technology. A marketing guy, John Bernier, found a way past obstacles including labor laws, legal problems, and technical challenges to make it work. Without John Bernier's ingenuity and perseverance, Coral Biegler would never have been in the position to respond, and Josh Korin would have been doing for Best Buy what Heather Armstrong did for Maytag-trashing it. What John Bernier and his team did-what they were permitted and empowered to do for Best Buy-is what really transformed this situation. They put Coral in a position to solve a customer's problem.

Coral called Josh Korin at home the next day, a Sunday. She arranged for him to go down to the store and get a loaner until his phone was fixed. "Coral was unbelievable," Josh told us. "She consistently said, 'I will find you a resolution, since you walked out of the store not satisfied, and that's not OK.'"

But this isn't the end of the story. Of course Josh is a loyal customer of Best Buy, now. Of course he tweeted that he's happy, and helped Best Buy to avoid its own Maytag moment. But what Coral didn't know at the time is that Josh's wife is @interactiveAmy, a Twitter member with over three thousand followers who gives presentations at places like the Social Media Breakfast group of Chicago (#smbchicago). Here's what interactiveAmy's Twitter followers were hearing:

@coral_bestbuy just told the story of how u & @twelpforce helped

@joshkorin to #smbchicago, they were so impressed!! Great job #bestbuy!

Josh Korin and his well-connected wife never got to create an avalanche of negative word of mouth for Best Buy, because Best Buy, with some timely, well-placed intervention, turned these detractors into promoters.

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About the Authors: Josh Bernoff is senior vice president of idea development at Forrester Research; Ted Schadler is vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, and Transform Your Business by Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler. Copyright 2010 Forrester Research, Inc.