Do your employees love your brand? Do they enjoy telling people what company they work for? Do they defend your brand from criticism? Do they enjoy their careers with you?
Every Saturday John Toppel goes to a computer store in his hometown to extol the virtues of HP to consumers, helping them get the most out of the various HP products sold there. Sometimes on weekdays he visits a college or university and helps HP recruit new employees. According to Toppel, "I feel like I have two marriages: a wonderful marriage at home for 36 years and a wonderful marriage at HP."
HP doesn't pay John Toppel a dime. He retired from the company four years ago. He is one of thousands of volunteers the firm has recruited from its retired employees. As an employee, Toppel loved the HP brand-he worked it, breathed it, slept it, reveled in it. He felt a sense of purpose there. Toppel was what we would call a highly engaged employee, which is something HP's culture seems to breed.
This kind of employee engagement is going to become increasingly critical to your success as a business, as the inexorable crunch of commoditization progresses. No matter how differentiated and unique your product offering is today, it takes very little time for competitors to duplicate it or offer other products with equivalent benefits.
The only real defense against such commoditization is the service you offer with your product, because customer service is something that is far more difficult for a competitor to imitate-and virtually impossible to imitate if your service springs from your knowledge of a particular customer's individual preferences or needs.
The real thing
Superior service cannot be automated beyond a basic level. Instead, the best service can only be delivered by employees who are engaged with their jobs: self-starting employees who are enthusiastic about their work, positive in their attitudes, and driven to accomplish their mission. Employees like HP's John Toppel. You can't write a rule for the employee manual that requires employees to delight customers. An employee has to want to do that, and this desire on your employee's part will make all the difference when it comes to determining whether you are competitively successful or not.
When employees have a sense of mission-when they see a purpose to their jobs that goes beyond simply earning a wage or delivering shareholder value-then it is much more likely that they will become truly engaged in their work, and capable of delivering the kind of remarkable service that competitive success requires.
With a strong sense of mission, employees will break down barriers and overcome obstacles to deliver outstanding service. But it can't be just any mission. Values matter. Employees must recognize and strive for values that will benefit their company and contribute to its success, not just in the sense of short-term profits, but also in terms of creating lasting value. They must see the justice and fairness in these values. When a sales rep, for instance, is tasked with achieving the most customer benefit-as opposed to the solely largest and most immediate product sales-he is much more likely to enjoy his job and remain enthusiastic about it. Solving customer problems, making the customer's life better, delivering a product or service at a fair profit that best fits the needs of the customer; these are the kinds of tasks that can infuse employees with enthusiasm.
Research has revealed a strong relationship between the level of employee engagement and a company's attitude toward its customers. Service organizations, in particular, have always relied on their strong cultures to ensure employee engagement. Brian Grubb, corporate director of learning and content delivery for the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, says, "Why do people want to work at the Ritz-Carlton? For excellence." And, it seems, excellence is why people want to keep working at Ritz-Carlton, as well. "We believe that it's that one interaction with one customer every day," he says.
Moreover, at most companies, employee engagement must come before genuine customer satisfaction, and this is particularly true of service organizations. At Wells Fargo, chairman Richard Kovacevich has explained his bank's effort to transform the corporate culture this way: "If you pay more attention to your people they, in turn, will take care of the customers, and if they do that, shareholders will prosper.... A lot of people have it backwards. They start with the shareholder."
Wells Fargo is a large, publicly held firm. The CEO is not saying that shareholders are not important. Far from it. He is saying that to benefit shareholders properly, you have to take good care of customers, and to do that, you first have to have committed, engaged employees with a strong sense of mission, and a passion for their work.
So, as more product-selling companies add customer services to their offerings to avoid commoditization, we predict that even manufacturing firms will soon come to value their employees not just for their efficiency, but for their enthusiasm about the mission.