Customer service Engagement

Internal vs. External Customers: Who Comes First?

In many organizations there are employees who not only serve customers, they ARE customers.

These “internal” customers are employees who rely on the information and resources provided by fellow employees who work in support functions such purchasing, HR, accounting, IT/information, etc. The level of quality service and support that “internal” customers receive from them impacts their ability to effectively serve a firm’s “external” customers.

Players on the same team?
Consider this statement from a colleague in a customer-contact position who described the response her department received when requesting assistance from support employees in the organization’s parent company: “Sometimes we’re mildly ignored, and other times we’re barely tolerated or just dismissed.” Imagine the frustration she and her team experienced trying to do their jobs.

When internal customers have their business service needs taken care of by co-workers — getting prompt responses to questions and requested support — they can then take care of the company’s external customers. Conversely, when these employees get poor service that impedes their ability to effectively do their jobs, they make take out their frustrations on other employees as well as customers — all contributing to a less than satisfactory work environment.

So which customers come first?
The answer to this question is easy.

“Paradoxically, to achieve an emotionally connecting customer experience, employees come first, ahead of the customer.”  Tom Peters

It’s not that one group is more important than the other; both are critical to an organization’s success. The overarching reality is that the quality of the employee experience (that of all employees in supporting and/or internal customer roles) ultimately impacts the quality of the customer experience.

To paraphrase my often-cited quote: “If employees don’t feel valued, neither will customers – internal and external.”

[Feather/egg image by congerdesign from Pixabay. Chick image by Azkia A. Mardhiah from Pixabay]


Customer service Training & Development

3 Simple Ways to Engage Employees in a Better Customer Experience

Need to have your employees better understand and improve the customer experience?

Here are three simple approaches designed to do just that. Each one can be applied to engage employees in sharing their experiences and building on their ideas to take care of customers.

1. Consider the customer perspective 

“Smart people walk in the shoes of their customers. But wise people remove their own shoes first.”

Because empathy is critical to improving the customer experience, it’s valuable for employees to consider and discuss their own experience as consumers. You can engage them in discussing one or more of the following questions, such as:

  • Thinking about a recent experience you had as a customer, how would you describe the quality of that experience? What stood out for you that made it that way? … Based on that experience, would you recommend that company to a friend? Why or why not?
  • As a consumer, how can you tell whether a company is customer-centric?
  • How do you see who you are and what you offer through the customer’s eyes?
  • [Based on the responses to these questions:] What does this say about how we serve our customers? … How can we do better?

2. Consider employee impact 

Use notable quotes from the business press that will work well as discussion-starters to elicit employee reactions and ideas. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • “The easiest way to turn a service into an experience is to provide poor service – thus creating an memorable encounter of the unpleasant kind.” B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, The Experience Economy
  • “Customers care about the degree to which you respect and value their business … If you provide customers with clues that you don’t value their business, then all the customer satisfaction in the world won’t help you.” David C. Lineweber
  • “If you respect the customer as a human being, and truly honor their right to be treated fairly and honestly, everything else is much easier.” Doug Smith
  • “Brands are built from within … [they] have very little to do with promises made through advertising. They’re all about promises met by employees.” Ian Buckingham

3. Consider combining both of the above approaches

Depending on how much time you have for discussion, you can start with the empathetic perspective and close with an applicable quote that supports delivering a positive customer experience. Or you can start with a quote and segue to discussing the customer’s perspective. As for selecting quotes, you can even invite employees to share a favorite or create their own.

Helpful tips

When you engage employees in these special discussions — whether as part of orientation, customer service training, staff meetings or retreats — you can elicit their understanding and ideas to better serve customers as well as co-workers who are “internal customers.”

Regardless of which of setting or approach(es) you use, it’s essential to conduct such discussions in a positive, non-threatening, and respectful setting. Your objective is twofold: 

  1. to encourage employees to comfortably share stories and actionable ideas that enable them to better serve customers, and
  2. avoid getting mired in a spiraling critique of complaints.

The key is to not dwell on negative barriers but focus on ways to overcome them.

And don’t forget the food (e.g., appropriate amounts of caffeine, water, sugar, healthy snacks, etc.) that can fuel the thinking and ideation process.



Low Unemployment – What It Means for Employee Engagement

“Companies are in a talent war. It’s a race to get the best candidates quickly since unemployment rates are lower than they’ve been in years.”

“The days of employees being thankful just to have a job are over and likely will not return for a while. Instead, the onus is on employers to cultivate and appreciate talent.”

“With the labor market as tight as it is, employers would be wise to do everything in their power to retain exceptional employees while simultaneously recruiting strong candidates.”

Business media contain similar quotes on today’s low unemployment situation. As an employee engagement advocate, you’d think I’d be excited about the flurry of attention given to employee recruitment and retention. But I’m not.

Reactive engagement

In the current economy, company execs concerned with repositioning their employer brands to be more attractive for recruiting purposes and/or seeking to hold on to their employees have re-discovered employee engagement. “We need qualified employees who want to work here and not jump ship for other opportunities. So what can we do now to engage them given the tight labor market?”

Here’s what bothers me about this situational response. Reactive engagement isn’t sustainable — particularly when applied as a short-term solution by short-sighted executives. Because what happens when the economy cycles back to high unemployment? That’s when these same execs revert to treating their employees as commodities, and management’s message changes from “What can we do to keep you here?” to “You’re lucky to have a job!”

Engagement matters regardless of the unemployment situation

Even when unemployment rates go up, companies need to invest in employee engagement, development, and retention. Because high unemployment also means reduced consumer spending; i.e., when fewer people are working, they tend to spend less. So even though companies might enjoy a “buyers market” when it comes to employees, they have to work harder to compete for customers. And to effectively attract and retain customers, you need highly engaged employees.

“If your employees don’t feel valued, neither will your customers.”  Sybil F. Stershic


Summer Blog Break 2018

Summer is upon us — that time of year when most people look forward to a warm weather vacation or stay-cation. While I continue to work throughout the summer, I do enjoy a brief break from blogging as a chance to relax from the pressure of posting and refresh my content ideas.

This temporary break only applies to my blog writing as I’ll still be active on LinkedIn and as @SybilQSM on Twitter sharing noteworthy content on internal marketing tools of engagement that impact the employee experience, volunteer experience, and customer experience.

I’ll be back in late August or early September with new posts. Until then, I hope you enjoy a safe and happy summer!





Customer service Engagement

You Can Forget the Customer Experience

Not that it doesn’t matter, because it does. But you can forget the customer experience IF you neglect to take care of the employee experience.

Here are several favorite quotes that capture the essence of the employee-customer experience connection.

“Paradoxically, to achieve an emotionally connecting customer experience, employees come first, ahead of the customer.”  Tom Peters

“When you improve your employees’ lives, they work harder and ultimately improve your customers’ lives.”  Jeanne Bliss

“The only reason your business is successful is because every interaction between employees and customers is positive. This only happens when employees are treated super well.”  Ann Rhoades

“Always treat your employees exactly as you want them to treat your best customers.”  Stephen R. Covey

“We can’t expect to win in the marketplace until we’re winning in the workplace … That means employee engagement is job one.”  Douglas Conant

“There is no way to deliver a great Customer Experience with miserable employees.”  Steve Cannon

As McKinsey & Company’s Sylvie Bardaune, Sebastien Lacroix, and Nicolas Maechler write in their article, When the Customer Experience Starts at Home:

“The closer a company can align its commitment to customer-centricity with the interests of its employees, the closer it will get to achieving its customer-strategy goals.” 




3 Customer Questions That Belong in Every Marketer’s Toolkit

Working on new product/service development or re-positioning an existing offering? Then you can’t afford to ignore what your customers and prospects are thinking.

“It’s very easy to think you are the expert on your own product. But in many ways, that’s a myth. The true experts are your customers.” Jamie Wong

That’s why you need to consider your customers’ perspective. Answering these inter-related questions are crucial to your success because they’re what your customers and prospects are asking as they decide whether to purchase from you or your competitors:

  1. “Who cares?” What, if anything, about this product/service offering appeals to me?
  2. “What difference does it make?” Does this offering solve a problem or meet a need (physical, emotional, social, financial, etc.) that I have or anticipate having?
  3.  What’s in it for me?” Based on real and perceived benefits, is this offering worth paying for in terms of money, time, and convenience; i.e., is it of value to me?

How to get the answers 

Finding the answers is simple: intentionally listen to your customers. Pay attention to a combination of listening posts such as customer surveys, feedback from front-line employees and other employee-customer interactions, call center analysis, complaint tracking, social media, etc., and any additional “voice-of-the-customer” market research that addresses these questions.

Most customers are eager to will tell you what they think, and they’ll tell others as well. Successful marketers respectfully listen.

“Listening is a commitment and a compliment.” Omar Khateeb



Customer service Marketing

How Careful are You with Your Brand?

Your brand is conveyed in everything you do to communicate and deliver your product/service offerings; i.e., what and how people think about your brand is based on the experiences they have with your business.

This story illustrates how a business manager formed her impression of a company’s brand when seeking a new payroll processing firm.

“I created a short list of companies and decided to do a bit of research before contacting any of them. My research was to simply visit each applicable website.

Turns out one of them had so many typos I immediately deleted them from the shortlist. Perhaps I should have contacted someone to tell them about the numerous errors, but I suspected they probably wouldn’t care. After all, if they cared there wouldn’t have been any typos, especially on their home page.

My thought process was this: if their website is so grammatically messed up, what will they do with our payroll?”

Organizations in all sectors — B2B, B2C, and nonprofits — need to be vigilant with their brands. In a study of mobile customers, 55% agreed with the statement “A frustrating experience on a website hurts my opinion of the brand overall.” That’s just one segment of customers, and it’s just one channel of brand communication.

Details, details, details …

While a brand is an intangible concept, its impact on the company’s bottom line is tangible. A spectrum of even minor product problems, customer service missteps, and communication errors can impact people’s perceptions of a company’s brand and its ultimate ability to attract or lose customers.

“The most successful people know that you either pay attention to the details now or you will absolutely pay the consequences later.” — Steve Keating, The Wisdom of Brown M&M’s

Can you afford to be careless with your brand?






Random Acts of Acknowledgment

“What a good helper you are!” my mother would say to a young child carefully handing boxes of cereal from the grocery shopping cart to be placed on the check-out counter. I’ll never forget the smiles on the child’s and parents’ faces when my mother would compliment them.

Similarly, smiling at the cashier and fellow customers while standing in line at the drug store … making polite conversation in an office lobby … sincerely complimenting a person’s hairstyle or shoes … these efforts take little time and energy, yet have tremendous impact.

According to research, engaging with and acknowledging others can actually benefit our health.

“People who engaged in simple pro-social behaviors with ‘weak ties’ — coworkers they didn’t know well, people in their fitness class, and so on — reported less loneliness and isolation and a higher level of happiness and well-being than people who avoided unnecessary conversation.” Scott Berinato, excerpt from a special HBR series about connecting at work.

We need such random acts of acknowledgment more than ever.

“At a time of vast and troubling uncertainty, in a world that is being reshaped by technology, small acts of connection take on outsized importance. It’s strange to think that a winning smile from a cashier or a flight attendant, or a nod of recognition from an employee who has seen you three times that week, might matter to the person receiving it — or to the person doing it. But … it does matter, both in terms of creating better human experiences and building more valuable organizations.” William C. Taylor, excerpt from an HBR article.

Positively acknowledging/connecting/engaging others – what a simple, powerful way to make a better workplace, community, and world.



Engagement Marketing

Can You Treat Customers Like Employees and Employees Like Customers?

Curiosity. A hunger to explore what works and what doesn’t. Respectively challenging others’ ideas. These are among the many reasons I enjoy speaking with groups of young adults preparing for leadership roles.

I recall one such gathering that involved an open discussion on marketing. We talked about dealing with difficult customers (it’s OK to terminate a relationship with customers when there’s no longer a good fit) and engaging employees with internal marketing (how to apply marketing inside a company to educate, motivate, and engage employees to deliver the brand promise).

“Excuse me,” asked one of the attendees, “but I think you have it backwards. You talk about ‘firing’ customers as if they are employees, and you also talk about ‘marketing’ to employees as if they are customers? How can this be?”

An excellent question … and one whose answer is based on understanding customers’ and employees’ respective roles and their value to a business and each other.

Customers pay for a firm’s products/services, which means they contribute the revenue that helps pay employee salaries. No customers =  no operating income = no business = no employees.

Employees serve customers by providing the products/services offered by the firm. No employees = no business to compete in the market = no customers.

A company needs to apply both marketing and management strategies to developing positive, loyal relationships with employees and customers so it can:

  1. attract, engage, and retain the right employees who are competent and committed to serving customers, and
  2. attract, engage, and retain the right customers whose needs will be best and profitably served by employees.

The takeaway: Yes, you can market to employees and you can manage customers. Done effectively, you’ll be able to work with the best of both.

Customer service Marketing Training & Development

What Do You Notice About These Three Customer Service Stories?

In honor of National Customer Service Week (observed the first week in October), here are three amazing stories told by customers — all marketing professionals — who experienced and analyzed them. They represent different situations that share a common theme.

Customer experience #1:

“I walked into an Eckerd Drug Store to buy a sympathy card. Before the clerk even rang up the purchase, he took a silk rose from a display at the counter, presented it to me, and said, ‘I’m sorry for your loss. I hope this will cheer you up a little.'” Toby Bloomberg

Toby’s takeaway: “There were no dramatic gestures, no casts of thousands, no high cost involved. Simply an elegant approach to ‘service’ between two people. And when you get right down to basics, isn’t that what “legendary service” is all about — people who go the extra mile to connect to the customer?”

Customer experience #2:

“It was a Saturday around noon at the Hyatt Woodfield hotel in Chicago for an American Marketing Association chapter leadership meeting. Just as our people were sitting down to lunch, the first alarm went off. We were quickly hustled outside by the staff and stayed outdoors for the better part of an hour due to a water emergency.

“A couple of weddings were scheduled to take place at the hotel later that day. One of the brides arrived that morning and, not finding a closet hook high enough to hold her wedding gown off the floor, she hung it on a fire system water sprinkler. The weight eventually broke the sprinkler head, spewing rusty water all over the gown in her room and other rooms on the floor that were linked on that sprinkler water line. The water also leaked through to rooms below the bride’s floor. The hotel could have easily blamed the bride for her misfortune and the inconvenience caused to everyone else in the hotel. But instead they summoned a limousine, took the bride and her mother across to the Nordstrom’s at Woodfield Mall to buy a new dress.” Chris Bonney

Chris’s takeaway: “I don’t know if the hotel was insured for this kind of thing or not. But they knew that it was cheaper for the bride to get a new dress so that her wedding could proceed and worry about the details later. They recovered the situation without embarrassing the bride and her family.”

Customer experience #3:

“My husband and I were traveling to Boston to attend a conference for his work when I had a medical emergency on the plane. Upon landing at the airport, I was immediately taken off the plane in a special ambulance gurney and transported to the hospital. While filling out our medical forms in the ER, my husband and I suddenly looked at each other to ask, “What happened to our luggage?!” since we left the plane in such a hurry.

“While I was in surgery, my husband took a taxi to the conference hotel and explained our situation. The Marriott Copley Hotel front desk clerk called the airport to find and hold our luggage. The hotel also arranged for a staff member to drive my husband back to the airport to collect the luggage, drop him off at the hospital to be with me after surgery, and place our luggage in the hotel room for when my husband returned.” This is my customer service story.

Here’s my takeaway: “In our situation, we were guests who arrived at the hotel with a problem that had nothing to do with the hotel itself. Yet the front desk staff showed their compassion and concern by going the extra step take care of us.”

What these stories share

My colleagues and I had different customer experiences with a common theme: demonstrations of exemplary service by employees who were empathetic and responsive to their customers — all in situations where the service provider did nothing wrong. Nonetheless, front line employees went “above and beyond” to do everything right.

What’s equally impressive is that these experiences took place more than 25 years ago. Extraordinary customer service — good and bad — leaves a lasting impression.