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 Hewlett-Packard to consumers, helping them get the most out of the company's various products. Sometimes on weekdays he visits a college or university and helps HP recruit new employees. "I feel like I have two marriages," says Toppel. "A wonderful marriage at home for 36 years, and a wonderful marriage at HP."
Hewlett-Packard 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. Toppel loved the HP brand; he felt a sense of purpose there.
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.
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.
But it can't be just any mission. 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 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—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. "Why do people want to work at the Ritz-Carlton?" says Brian Grubb, the hotel giant's corporate director of learning and content delivery. "For excellence."
Moreover, at most companies, employee engagement must come before genuine customer satisfaction. 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."
Now, Wells Fargo is a large, publicly held firm, so the CEO isn't saying that shareholders aren't important. Far from it. What he's saying is 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 passion for their work. Enthusiasm about the mission is key.