There are business leaders in every industry who have made their careers and built competitive advantage for their companies by devoting their time and attention to being great at customer-centricity.
There are business leaders —especially with HR responsibilities— in every industry who have made their companies employers of choice by devoting their time and attention to being great at employee-centricity.
In a time of rapidly changing customer expectations, thinking deeply about the needs and wants of the people who buy what your business offers can be the difference between success and failure.
In a time of rapidly changing employee expectations, thinking deeply about the needs and wants of your employees can be the difference between winning and losing the people who determine whether you succeed or fail.
Does it feel like we are having two similar, parallel conversations?
People are people. They want things that we can all probably guess at, and that we can certainly study in detail to confirm those guesses. A lot of the skills and thought processes that make someone great at being customer-centric immediately transfer over to being employee-centric and vice versa, but we talk about them as two very different things. For today’s column, let’s bring these ideas together.
Why Should We?
If I gave you some links about customer-centricity conversations we have had, and then gave you some more links about employee-centric content, you would probably notice while there is a lot to say, there is not that much overlap in who is saying it.
Every one of those customer-centricity links —and that is not an exhaustive list, but it is representative— leads to someone with responsibilities for manufacturing or supply chain or sustainability functions who can connect their work to the end user while making a persuasive business case that the what they do with the customer in mind creates mutually beneficial outcomes for both their companies and the people the companies depend upon.
Every one of those employee-centricity links —and that is not an exhaustive list, but it is representative— leads to someone with HR responsibilities who can connect their work to the happiness and satisfaction of company employees while making a persuasive business case that the what they do with the workforce and Top talent in mind creates mutually beneficial outcomes for both their companies and the people the companies depend upon.
Wouldn’t the manufacturing, supply chain, and sustainability professionals benefit from a clearer understanding of the people they need to serve their customers better?
Wouldn’t the HR professionals benefit from a clearer understanding of what their companies’ customers want?
While of course we are speaking in generalizations, this disconnect bears all the hallmarks of a situation where job responsibilities were siloed off in yesteryear for good reasons that have been long forgotten, but today they prevent executives from sharing what works across departments or having a clearer picture of how the business works. We talk about breaking down silos and sharing best practices and lessons learned at every Executive Platforms event. These two almost identical issues being worked on separately but in parallel are prime candidates for cross-pollination.
The Broad Specifics
We have already said it: People are people. You, reading this right now, are a person. You probably have a pretty good idea of what people want as both a customer and as an employee, even without the context of what the customer is buying or who employs the employee. Why don’t we do a quick list that is going to apply to just about anything and anyone?
- What they buy to be what they think it is and do what it is supposed to do, or better. Whether we are talking about food or clothing or technology or mutual funds or bags of cement or dental work, no one wants to buy one thing and get another instead. Whatever they purchased should be what they wanted and do what they wanted it for, and the only pleasant surprise is when their expectations are exceeded.
- They want good value for their money. This is not a point about low prices. There are thrifty buyers and spendthrifts and everything in between —I have a colleague who often jokes, “You can’t call it conspicuous consumption if it’s not conspicuous!”— but whenever anyone buys anything, they want to be satisfied that the price they paid is fair for what they received, if only in their own mind.
- They want it as soon as possible, and if there is some kind of delay, they want to know what is happening. The later half of that is probably the biggest change in customer wants and needs in my lifetime. The idea that a customer expects to understand what is going on in the supply chain of who they are buying from, and that companies would both be willing and able to share that information in something like real-time is an amazing transformation that has happened within the working lives of the current generation of senior supply chain executives.
- They want to be happy enough with it to tell others. Human beings are social creatures. If we find something we like, part of the joy of that experience is often in telling others about it. “Surprise and delight the customer” is a mantra many companies embrace for good reason. Word-of-Mouth advertising is the most trusted form of marketing, with 88% of people trusting their friends recommendations more than any other form of media. Businesses that can satisfy people enough to give them something to talk about and share with others are creating a win-win scenario where that happy customer becomes one of their best sales tools.
- All four of the previous points add up to a larger whole. They want to feel good about what they bought. Now that goes beyond what we have already mentioned to cover things as specific as the purchasing experience and things as broad as buying something sustainable or made locally or supporting a cause or group they believe in. Feeling good about what they bought can be the joy and freedom of owning a car, or the satisfaction in paying a little more for fairtrade coffee, or knowing that the item they bought has a lifetime warranty. There are a million things that fall into feeling good about what they bought, and all of them are of vital importance to someone, and companies ignore that at the peril of losing their customer base to a competitor who is willing to put in the work.
Okay, that’s a pretty broad but fair overview of what customers want. What about employees? I had a conversation recently with an HR leader who said, “No one really joins a company because they want to improve shareholder dividends,” which I thought was one of those points that does not get said often enough. A senior executive has a responsibility for the company to do well, of course, but the vast majority of the workforce is going to be motivated by self-interest, and that is absolutely fine. We would be crazy to build a company thinking everyone is as worried about the bottom line as the people who are actually responsible for the bottom line.
- Let’s not tiptoe around it. This isn’t a conversation about volunteers. An employee is paid, and a happy employee is paid fairly, and by and large the more you pay someone, the happier they are going to be. There are obvious limits to how much a company can pay everyone for the sake of employee happiness, and there are some jobs where no amount of money is going to be a magic wand leading to happiness and well-being, but any list of employee wants and needs that does not start with money is not an honest list.
- They want to be recognized. Before I expand on this, let me just say people who think this is the same thing as money have fundamentally misunderstood employee-centricity. This is about taking pride in what you do and having that work acknowledged by others. Whether you are a frontline worker in a retail environment or an office worker or someone on an assembly line, the vast majority of people would rather do a good job than a bad job, and when they do a good job, they want people to notice and acknowledge it. Again, human beings are social creatures. We are hard-wired to seek positive reinforcement from others, and that absolutely applies to our working lives as much as it applies to anything else.
- They want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. This is not about making a difference in the world, although there are certainly people who choose where they work and what sort of work they want to do with that in mind. No, in any business larger than a self-employed one-man-band operation every employee is joining a larger collective with its own sense of shared identity, and to be happy in that group they want to be understood, heard, and included by others. As part of that larger group —be it a team, a department, or a whole business— an effective leader can direct their energies towards goals with confidence that people will want to achieve those goals together and take collective satisfaction in positive outcomes. Leaders who are great at connecting one person to many people with common objectives are key players in how anything and everything gets done.
- They want to be able to take care of what matters to them outside of work. Now this has always been true, but in recent years HR philosophy has moved from not talking about what people do outside their working hours to approaching every individual as a whole person with their own wants and needs. Who they are at work might be a huge part of who they are as a person, or it might just be something they do to support what they do outside of work, or every shade of grey between those two ends of the spectrum. The fact is everyone is doing their job so they can live their lives. A company that cares about what matters to their people and helps them achieve those goals is going to be a better employer in the eyes of its workforce than the company that does not every time.
- They want to be able to grow. This does not necessarily mean rising through the ranks of the workforce. There are many people who are very happy doing what they do for years without chasing promotions. Personal and professional growth is as individualized as what people care about outside their working hours. Giving people options and opportunities and then supporting them with whatever they choose to get passionate about is another one of the marks of an employer of choice.
- They want to be proud of their work. Again, this covers a wide range of things, but just like the customer wants to be happy with what they bought, an employee wants to be happy with what they do. Very few engaged and productive employees do not have an emotional connection to what they produce. While people do like to complain about their work —it can be a very natural and healthy way to blow off steam— a happy employee will always do so with some pride in what they accomplished. Even with hard jobs, complicated jobs, unpleasant jobs, that sense of accomplishment and ownership of a positive outcome is fundamental and can be a source of deep and abiding satisfaction when they are done well.
Connecting the Commonalities
As we put together both lists, maybe one of the things that occurred to you was how much of this all sounded like common sense? You are not missing something. In fact, you identified the whole point. To take things one step further: All of this seems pretty reasonable to you, because you are both a customer and an employee yourself, and this is what you want and how you want to be treated.
We are all people, and while there are many things that make us individuals, there are many more things we all have in common. Figuring out how to make someone happy and satisfied with their relationship to a business should always start from a place of, “What do I want?” and then expand that empathetically to, “What do others want that may be a little different from me, but still makes sense?”
Very few businesses are built around the outliers on the extreme ends of the bell curve. Aiming for what the vast majority of people desire is a recipe for success.
Senior executives looking to best serve their customers do not need to adjust their thinking very much to think of serving their employees as well, and happier employees will in the end drive customer satisfaction.
Senior executives looking to make their employees happy do not need to adjust their thinking very much to also make their customers happy, and happier customers will in the end drive employee satisfaction.
I expect the surveys, studies, and statistics underpinning S&OP’s understanding of what customers want use many of the same methodologies that HR uses when monitoring employee engagement and employee experience. How often do those two important job functions share what they are doing with each other? What would be involved in making that conversation happen? What is the worst thing that will come from putting those two groups of experts together in a room to talk about what they do with people who do the same sort of work pointing in a different direction?
The companies that do customer-centricity well should also do employee-centricity well, and vice versa.
There is a real business opportunity for the senior executives responsible for one of these people-centric functions to reach out to their counterparts and make both work better.
Head of Content & Research
Geoff joined the industry events business as a conference producer in 2010 after four years working in print media. He has researched, planned, organized, run, and contributed to more than a hundred events across North America and Europe for senior leaders, with special emphasis on the energy, mining, manufacturing, maintenance, supply chain, human resources, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, finance, and sustainability sectors. As part of his role as Head of Content & Research, Geoff hosts Executive Platforms’ bluEPrint Podcast series as well as a weekly blog focusing on issues relevant to Executive Platforms’ network of business leaders.
Geoff is the author of five works of historical fiction: Inca, Zulu, Beginning, Middle, and End. The New York Times and National Public Radio have interviewed him about his writing, and he wrote and narrated an animated short for Vice Media that appeared on HBO. He has a BA Honours with High Distinction from the University of Toronto specializing in Journalism with a Double Minor in History and Classical Studies, as well as Diploma in Journalism from Centennial College.