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The Secret Sauce IS Employee Satisfaction


The Secret Sauce IS Employee Satisfaction

By: Steve Sadler, CEO, Allegiancy

October 30, 2015

Sometimes it seems like life is awfully complicated these days. But then again … everything is simple. So, let’s talk about something you already know — people are happier when their work is meaningful and valued. And, happy people are more fun to be around and deliver better service to customers. See, that Harvard MBA stuff isn’t so hard, is it?

In 1952 in a little cowboy town in central Oregon, a young man in his mid-30s named Les Schwab bought a tire store for $11,000, financing it with $3,500 of his own money and the rest from his brother-in-law.

He had big ideas for his tire store. One of them was to share half of his company’s profits with his employees. “The more you share, the more you have left for yourself,” he said. He also hired from within and Les Schwab Tires store managers who now manage the company’s 450 stores in the western U.S. can make six-figures.

Today Les Schwab Tires has more than 7,000 employees, $1.5 billion in revenue and is known for its customer service. Employees are clean cut and hustle, knowing if they work hard and treat customers well they can advance in the company. Schwab would write in his book, “Pride in Performance: Keep it Going!” that Les Schwab Tires is different from most American corporations in that it considers its most important employees those on the “firing line” — the ones who sell, do the service work and take care of the customer. They also have incentive to work hard.

Those values are reflected in the testimonials of customers that Les Schwab Tires posts on its website. A common theme is the service from Les Schwab Tires employees. One customer described an early blizzard hitting her Colorado city and getting to a Colorado Les Schwab Tires store 90 minutes before it even opened to get in line early to get snow tires. The store manager was also there and walked up to the car to ask what she needed, then helped locate tires and pitched in to assist a tech put the snow tires on the car. The customer, a teacher, was on her way to work before the store even officially opened.

Customer disservice

Contrast this with my recent experience at a car dealership. It was one of those days where I was already late for a meeting and told the employee behind the counter I was in a hurry. Did that matter to him? Not in the least.

He insisted on slowly typing through his pages on his computer to enter data and attempted to make me stay there the whole time. He gave no thought to the customer. When he asked me my address I lost it – this guy was essentially wasting my time on information that had nothing to do with fixing the car. What really irked me was that it was completely unnecessary and that he did it knowing full well that I had pressing issues.

Ultimately, it was a prime example of completely losing sight of this novel concept called “customer service.” The idea behind customer service is to put the customer’s needs above your own. The idea of serving, putting others ahead of yourself, has been completely lost by some companies. Maybe many companies. Alright, most companies…it really is a crisis of Biblical proportions!

Here’s the kicker though. The fault for bad service lies not necessarily with him — he certainly has a big role in it — but it lies with his boss. It’s pretty clear to me that the employee’s boss is clueless about what’s happening in his company in regard to customer service. That’s bad leadership and it damages the organization.

The connection between employees and customers

In the book, “Organizational Behavior, v. 2.0,” by Talya Bauer and Berrin Erdogan, the authors define organizational behavior as the systematic study and application of knowledge about how individuals and groups act within the organizations where they work. “The best companies in the world,” Bauer and Erdogan write, “understand that the people make the place. How do we know this? Well, we know that organizations that value their employees are more profitable than those that do not.”

I won’t be going back to that dealership. That makes them less profitable. How many other people who had the same experience are not going back, making them even more less profitable.

Do you see what’s going on here? There’s a connection between valuing employees translating into valuing customers, which directly leads to profits. A lot of company owners pay lip service to company service, but how many actually are committed and successfully execute pleasing the customer?

Here’s what USA Today had to say: “Most large companies aspire to have a reputation for exceptional customer service. Only a select few, however, manage to earn it.”

Becoming No. 1

What’s interesting is that the top-ranked company in America for customer service — by far — is Amazon, according to a survey undertaken by USA Today’s 24/7 Wall St. and Zogby Analytics. The survey polled more than 1,500 adults on the customer service quality of 151 of America’s best-known companies in 15 industries.

Finishing No. 3 was Apple, in No. 2 was Chick-fil-A and Amazon came out on top. Yes, Amazon, which endured an unflattering profile in the New York Times in August. In the lengthy article, former Amazon employees criticized the demanding, bruising work environment that left many scarred.

It’s hard to reconcile the toxic Amazon that’s depicted in the story with the customer-oriented retailer that’s tops in service in the minds of consumers. It’s not the culture I want to replicate but here’s one of my key takeaways from the New York Times story: “The focus is on relentless striving to please customers, or `customer obsession’ (No. 1), with words like `mission’ used to describe lightning-quick delivery of Cocoa Krispies or selfie sticks.”

There it is, the “relentless striving to please customers” that sets Amazon apart. According to the USA Today article, the respondents to the survey gave a number of reasons for rating companies good or bad, but the majority of the responses related to an interaction with a company employee. “Because of this,” according to the article, “it may be that customer satisfaction is tied closely with employee satisfaction.”

The motivation factor

Praveen Kopalle, professor of marketing at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University, was quoted in the article as saying that customers get their service by interacting with the employees, and so for the employees to provide better service they have to take ownership of what they are selling. “If you have employees who are motivated, who take ownership, who take pride in what they do, that translates to customer satisfaction right away,” Kopalle said.

It’s a comment by Kopalle that takes us right back to the examples I cited earlier. Les Schwab cultivated a culture of employee motivation and drive that resulted in favorable customer experiences and a successful business. My experience in the car dealership was the polar opposite featuring an employee who appeared to have no stake whatsoever in the success of the company and reflected what I can only surmise is a leadership vacuum.

Creating satisfied customers isn’t one of the great mysteries of the universe. What it requires is employees who want to see customers enjoy their experience and that is achieved by leaders of businesses committed to seeing employees satisfied in their work. That takes commitment, vision and motivation, all hallmarks of the entrepreneurial spirit. Take care of the customer and the bottom line will take care of itself….and it is your employees you are counting on each and every day to do just that.

It also takes one other key thing: Leadership. My definition of a good leader is a man of vision and integrity – and one who sets the example. So how are you serving your employees? Because once you figure that out, I’m positive you’ll start seeing satisfied customers.

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  • Lorraine Mary Ward-Walsh

    Dear Steve,
    Thank you for this classic, thought provoking blog. I agree with your vision of leadership and add to it a quality I heard long ago from a well respected leader; leadership is the ability to get people to excel in ways things they didn’t think they could. It’s a ‘pulling the best out of them’ of sorts. I also agree that the best way is to help them by getting them to achieve what they want, which takes identifying what they want first. For some it may be money, for others it may be time freedom. I am a business startup and completely realize that my employees are my front line and I am planning to offer an incentive based program, not unlike Schwabs, with the goal of always inspiring them to be their best and to keep the customer’s needs first. It is very hard work but I always want them to feel great about the product and service we offer. I have been involved in different hospitality industries for decades and the one thing that has made our sale’s successful is to always anticipate the customer’s needs, and be prepared to execute professionally and well. The application of this in my business is to develop client profiles that detail their specific health concerns for the purpose of providing meals tailored to their needs that are tasty and affordable. We also serve our customers by inviting them to give us feedback on how we’re doing, and incentivize them by having a drawing for a free lunch once a week. Our menu is purposely constructed in a ‘loose’ way that allows for pivots based on feedback, seasonality of food, and special time-sensitive items. Thanks again for this thought provoking post it is an essential reminder that if we don’t give our customers a reason to do business with us, we won’t exist.
    Lorraine Walsh
    Good Life Kitchen
    Gloucester VA

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