Top 3 employee engagement strategies for better customer service


Typically, our clients are service providers – and providing excellent customer service is a core element for them as they seek to remain viable, relevant and effective now and into the future. Meeting rising customer expectations depends on your ability to engage your people in an organisational vision and build their capability to bring it into being, as they identify and deal with customers’ challenges.

The nature of customer service has changed and is changing.

For many of our local government clients, for example, delivering customer service is more than being able to collect rates or process building development applications – although that’s important.

The process of delivering excellent customer service commences with identifying what their ‘customers’ or ‘constituents’ want and need. It’s a process of community engagement to articulate their visions of how they want to live and work. Often these visions are of vibrant communities supported by economic prosperity and environmental sustainability. But ‘delivery’ of these visions is a long term commitment.

For other ‘not for profit’ (or ‘for purpose’) clients, the intention or purpose is to make a difference on behalf of a membership base in response to a values-rich cause.

What’s required for excellent customer service in these complex contexts?

These visions are not clear ‘goods and services’ as delivered by those businesses where customer satisfaction may be rated immediately after a ‘transaction’.

Our work suggests that excellent customer service is founded in an organisational culture of engagement – externally with community members and internally with colleagues. We believe the appropriate question is:

How can we bring out the best in people – liberating their talents and passion in service to the organisational and community vision?

The answer does not lie in complicated processes and procedures – its lies in simply enabling people to serve the organisational purpose and vision, with passion and in accordance with the organisation’s authentic values.

The challenge is to cultivate an organisational environment where your people feel trusted; inspired to bring all that they can offer to the service of the organisation; and fully invested in the vision and values that shape organisational life. Sounds simple!

But as Steve Jobs, one of the ultimate proponents of simplicity once said…

“Simple can be harder than complicated.  You have to work hard to get your thinking clear to make it simple.  But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there you can move mountains.”

Our top 3 strategies to full engagement for better customer service

For over 15 years we have been guiding organisational leaders in their efforts to engage their people to serve the organisational vision and purpose. We have learned so much that we could write a book – but here are our three top strategies:

1.   Co-create a shared vision, purpose and values – trust and engage everyone’s hearts

Most people working in larger organisations today do not have any idea what the real vision is or how that translates into their daily work. We believe this is because most visions are created by the executive team and then developed into a pithy one sentence summary that can be ‘shared’ by telling others what the vision is. The other popular process is to develop ‘strategic values’ that will serve the organisation and ‘roll them out’ too.

This process does not demonstrate a trust in people and it does not enable them to do their own ‘adaptive work’.  It doesn’t engage them, because it doesn’t resonate with them.

An alternative is to involve everyone in co-creating the vision – which is a rich story of a desired future. We now have the human technology (facilitation processes) to do this on a large scale. The needed values are not separate from the vision but are embedded within it. And once articulated, action learning processes can be implemented at the team level to help each team develop its own subculture specific to its own purpose, and consistent with the overall organisational culture.

2.   Cultivate an environment where people have permission to bring their whole selves to work

A by-product of the industrial production line has been the mantra to “leave your emotions at the door”. In a highly engineered production line environment, people became servants to the machinery and extensions of it – robots almost. The desire was for work that was consistent and efficient in process and output.

Today’s service environment is light years away from the production line, but the legacy of processes and systems and policies to ensure consistency and efficiency remain.

Your most powerful resource is actually your people’s capacity to realize their full potential in the service of others (including your customers) and of the organisation.  By focusing on nurturing an environment where people build on their strengths, work in areas of their passion and continue to develop, grow and learn, you can cultivate a human environment where people “go the extra mile”.  They will do this because they want to – not because they have been told to.  And they will innovate because they feel the freedom and responsibility to innovate as they serve.  This strategy requires day-to-day management practices that set people up for success at work – they prove to be a great relief to everyone!

3.   Nurture an attitude of learning together

In the received wisdom about how managers get things done are two, often unconscious, assumptions:

  1. Planning the vision and values is the hard part, and implementing is just a matter of telling people what to do; and
  2. We already know how to bring the vision into being.

Neuroscience is telling us (ironic isn’t it?) that in learning and change, telling is not as effective as enabling people to gain personal insight or have the personal ‘ah-ha’ moment.

Bringing your vision into being is really a learning process. Or, to use language from the adaptive leadership framework, bringing your vision into being is an adaptive challenge that is more often treated as a technical challenge, and is usually unsuccessful due to this misdiagnosis.

The solution is to nurture an attitude of learning your way to the vision. Everyone needs to learn – at all levels of the organisation. Learning requires the embrace of errors, not as ‘failure’, but as an opportunity for greater understanding. When combined with the sense of freedom and responsibility engendered by setting people up for success (strategy 2 above), mistakes are not high risk. The higher risk is not making any errors and not learning on the way. That path leads to the well-known definition of insanity “doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”

An added bonus: this approach to customer service nurtures a life sustaining organisation

Linking back to the visions and purposes that most of our clients have at their core, the added bonus of our approach to improving customer service, is that it nurtures an organisational culture that:

  • nurtures its own people so that they nurture the organisation’s ‘customers’;
  • nurtures the community in which it resides in an integreated fashion (economic and socially); and
  • nurtures the natural environment we all depend upon for our own wellbeing.

It nurtures an organisation that is like a living organism – its a profound change.

Simplicity itself – not always easy

What we have learned is not ‘rocket science’ but it’s not always easy, partly because it requires unlearning what we have been taught in the past. And having a partner who can help uncover the unconscious assumptions and suggest ways to experiment with alternatives to the received wisdom can be helpful.

If you would like to explore how to engage your people to serve your customers more fully – please give me a call. (You can check out our track record in this area in a 3 minute video featuring past clients talking about our work.)