Ms. Abel-Lanier

Guest Service / Customer Experience Mgmt

Meaningful Work: The Act of Service

By Kimberly Abel-Lanier, Vice President & General Manager Workforce Solutions, Maritz Motivation Solutions

The American workforce is changing. By 2020, Millennials are predicted to represent 50 percent of the working population. In terms of attracting, retaining and motivating the best and the brightest in this group "it's simply going to take more than a paycheck, good benefits and a ping pong table. This group (and the upcoming Baby Z's) has lofty goals...they want to impact the world and connect to a higher purpose. This means there are higher expectations for meaningful work coming to the mainstream employer. In 2013, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported a 12 percent increase over 10 years in the number of employees who rank "meaningful work on the job" as "very important" to their satisfaction at work. Other factors like compensation, job security, and communication" remained high-ranking, but didn't increase by more than 1 percent in the same period. Increasingly, workers just want to feel that they are making a difference and doing something important.

More than a paycheck, employees today want to know they impact society as a whole, beyond the organization or any one individual. They want to be acknowledged, appreciated and rewarded for making a difference through their work.

Simultaneously, the expectations for service have gone up. In a 2001 article for HRZone, Tom Knighton recounted the prediction of Dell's at-the-time Chief Information Officer, Jerry Gregoire(1), "The customer experience is the next competitive battleground." Knighton elaborated, "The customer experience makes the difference between a loyal customer and an enthusiastic customer. The people who are involved in creating and delivering the experience make the difference between customer affection or customer defection; and building a powerful service brand makes the difference between market leadership and market indifference."

Hospitality employers are now charged with the task of connecting meaning to great service for their workforce. This task requires climbing up a mountain of disengagement in today's workforce. In 2013, Gallup reported(2) only 30 percent of American employees were "actively engaged" in their work." Aside from the costs of lost productivity, the opportunity cost of subpar service can be the difference between high and low occupancy rates. Companies with high employee engagement had twice the customer loyalty (repeat purchases, likely to recommend, higher wallet share) than companies with average employee engagement levels(3). Researchers for Gallup reported, "When organizations successfully engage their customers and their employees, they experience a 240 percent boost in performance-related business outcomes compared with an organization with neither engaged employees nor engaged customers."(4)

Let's establish what makes engaged employees unique. New York Times bestselling author and Forbes columnist Kevin Kruse defines employee engagement as "the emotional commitment an employee has to the organization and its goals." Engaged employees give discretionary effort; they go what's known as "the extra mile" in support of delivering on the brand promise.

Imagine the level of service your employees could offer customers if the majority were engaged in accomplishing work they consider meaningful. When employees are dedicated to going beyond their job descriptions to accomplish the greater goal of service, the customer experience goes from problems, to good, to great, to memorable. And, that's where "cult loyalty" starts.

Most leaders are familiar with the Net Promoter Score (NPS) system introduced by Frederick Reichheld in a 2003 Harvard Business Review article as the "One Number You Need to Grow." Customers are asked a single question to rate their experience: "How likely is it that you would recommend our company/product/service to a friend or colleague?" Participants respond with a number between zero and ten, with zero being "not at all likely" and ten being "extremely likely." The NPS considers Promoters (customers who score 9-10 out of 10) as "loyal enthusiasts who will keep buying and refer others, fueling growth."

Customer satisfaction is essential to growth. Engaged employees are essential to customer satisfaction. And meaningful work is at the center of employee engagement. How do leaders make the connection to offer tangible, meaningful experiences to both customers and employees?

It starts with the employee. There are four primary measures organizations can leverage to strengthen the connection employees feel to their work:

  1. Clearly communicate the organization's purpose and brand promise to employees
  2. Connect the dots between personal values and purpose through "living the promise" and excellent service
  3. Close the loop on customer feedback
  4. Recognize employee efforts through rewards.

Clearly Communicate the Organization's Purpose and Brand Promise to Employees

Marketing executives serve as the organization's promise-makers with the story they communicate to the market, but employees act as promise-keepers with the service they communicate to customers. When employees don't understand how they fit into the big picture of their organization (or what the big picture is), it's more difficult to understand how their contributions make an impact - or what meaning they have. In 2013, Gallup reported only 41% of employees knew what their company stands for and only about half of employees surveyed said they understood what was expected of them at work.(5) Today, most leaders understand the need to communicate the organization's unique value to customers, but fewer communicate this to employees in a way that enables them to find purpose in their work. When employees understand how the organization is making a difference in the lives of customers, they begin to understand how their individual work offers meaningful contributions.

The stakes are high: A 2012 study(6) from global consulting firm and Net Promoter Score methodology co-creators Bain & Company found employees in customer service functions maintained the lowest average engagement scores, with approximately 6 percent of customer service employees identifying as "promoters." This group has the most direct contact with customers, and their currently low engagement represents an opportunity for organizations to improve the service they offer customers.

It starts with how leaders express the purpose or what's important to the business. They can chose to focus on "shareholder value" or, like Chip Conley, Founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels focus his dialog around "...creating opportunities to celebrate the joy of life through style and personality­"

Connect the Dots From Personal Values to Excellent Service and "Living the Brand Promise"

Too often, organizations assume a paycheck is enough of a driver to earn employee engagement and loyalty. Money can be a motivator, but over time, it's not enough to garner discretionary effort. In a 2008 report, researchers John P. McClure and James M. Brown wrote(7), "Employees want to have a sense they are making some kind of difference, they want other people to know who they are, and they want their work to be acknowledged and rewarded."

You've probably heard what is now almost a cliché "hire for attitude; train for skill". It has merit. Ensure your recruiting efforts screen for personal values that are aligned with your organization's values. Values-alignment, a clear purpose and a connection to how their work is meaningful and connected to the bigger picture will create a best place to work and a service environment that creates "cult loyalty" with customers.

Close the Loop on Customer Feedback

Bain & Company claim "the single most important key" to progress within the Net Promoter SystemSM is incorporating feedback into daily operations and then "closing the loop." Here they refer to "closing the loop" as "sharing the feedback from a customer" as soon after it is received as possible "directly with the employees most responsible for creating the customer "experience."

By facilitating relationships and feedback loops between your customers and employees in this way, it's easier to realize customers are real people touched in real ways by the organization. Customers can recognize employees for great service and employees can see where their work makes a difference in the lives of people they interact with daily.

Reward Employees for Meeting and Exceeding Service Standards and Personal Goals

Being seen and recognized for contributions at work represents an important psychological need beyond the identity of "employee" - it's a human need. Most companies know this - in a 2012 study from Bersin by Deloitte(8), 75 percent of companies reported a recognition program in place, but only 58 percent of employees were aware of the programs in their organizations and only 17 percent of employee respondents believed their organizations' cultures strongly supported recognition. Despite organizations investing an average of 1 percent of payroll to recognition programs, there's an obvious disconnect in how employees are recognized and rewarded for their work. Add to this Gallup's 2001 finding that the top reason Americans say they leave their jobs is feeling underappreciated(9) and the cost of neglecting recognition or poor program design becomes more apparent. Aside from the opportunity cost of subpar customer service delivered by disengaged employees, the costs of high turnover and lost productivity are high - Gallup estimates disengaged employees cost U.S. businesses between $450 billion and $550 billion annually(10). And, according to Compensation Force, the industry noted with the highest turnover rate in 2014 was Hospitality (27.6%).

The most powerful benefits of an engaged workforce are reserved for those organizations who focus on creating a culture of recognition, often a critical component of developing what's referred to as a "best places to work culture." A true culture of recognition requires going beyond carrots on sticks - or, incentive - behavior - reward. Within an effective, holistic portfolio of recognition programs focused on important milestones like tenure or retirement, corporate values based peer-to-peer, property specific service metrics and overall operational performance, employees are empowered to take ownership of the way they do their work, the way they serve customers, and the way they recognize and acknowledge the work of others.

All programs are not created equally, and neither are all rewards. Different types of rewards carry different meanings and levels of impact to employees. There are two categories of rewards: a) Noncash rewards and b) cash rewards. A balanced recognition program will incorporate a good mix of both categories.

There is also a change in the perception based on who gives feedback, with recognitions from managers, peers, and customers all weighing in with different levels of meaning for recipients. Organizations that utilize only source of recognition (top-down) and a limited scope of rewards don't realize the full range of benefits that accompany strategic recognition programs.

It's no secret that engaged employees serve customers better. When hospitality workers understand the impact of their service, they can discover meaning in their work. With Millennials predicted to make up half of the American workforce within the next five years, understanding what makes work meaningful is quickly moving up in the list of priorities for modern leaders. When employees see the full picture of how their work impacts the business, their coworkers, and, most importantly, the customer - they can discover fulfillment at work and deliver better service. To win the hearts and minds of customers, leaders must first win the hearts and minds of their workforce. With the customer at the heart of every employee's function, purpose, and drive, the potential for service that delights can be limitless.


(1) Customer Experience: The Next Competitive Battlefield. Tom Knighton on HRZone. http://www.hrzone.com/lead/strategy/customer-experience-the-next-competitive-battlefield-by-tom-knighton
(2) 2013 State of the American Workplace Report. Gallup. http://employeeengagement.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Gallup-2013-State-of-the-American-Workplace-Report.pdf
(3) "Are They Really On the Job?" Pont.
(4) 2013 State of the American Workplace Report. Gallup. http://employeeengagement.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Gallup-2013-State-of-the-American-Workplace-Report.pdf
(5) 2013 State of the American Workplace Report. Gallup. http://employeeengagement.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Gallup-2013-State-of-the-American-Workplace-Report.pdf
(6) http://www.bain.com/Images/BAIN_BRIEF_Who%27s_responsible_for_employee_engagement.pdf
(7) Belonging at Work, 2008. McClure, John P., Brown, James M. Human Resource Development International. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13678860701782261
(8) https://www.bersin.com/News/Content.aspx?id=15543
(9) http://www.amazon.com/How-Full-Is-Your-Bucket/dp/1595620036
(10) 2013 State of the American Workplace Report. Gallup. http://employeeengagement.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Gallup-2013-State-of-the-American-Workplace-Report.pdf

Kimberly Abel-Lanier is Vice President and General Manager of Workforce Solutions for Maritz Motivation Solutions. Ms. Abel-Lanier leads the strategy and development of the company’s employee recognition solution, CultureNext. Ms. Abel-Lanier is passionate about helping companies create a culture of engagement and purpose. She has over 20 years of experience in employee engagement strategies and has worked with many F500 global brands. Previously Ms. Abel-Lanier was Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at Inspirus. Before Inspirus, she was the Co-Founder and President of Prosperiti, a privately held company focused on providing enterprise performance technologies to Fortune 1000 companies. Ms. Abel-Lanier can be contacted at 817-507-7386 or kimberly.abel@maritz.com Please visit https://www.maritzmotivation.com/employee-engagement for more information. Extended Bio...

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