Happy Employees = Happy Customers

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All rights reserved 2004, Olivier Blanchard

Interesting point made by Brains On Fire's Spike Jones today in regards to the link between employee happiness and customer service:

"Happy employees make happy customers. That’s where a good identity lives and breathes - and grows from. If any of the (wireless) carriers had the buy-in of their employees and actually cared about them (and took care of them), then things could start to change. (...) I'm talking about the real people that represent the identity on a daily basis."

If you've read my recent posts on flight attendants and Lowes employees, you'll know that I couldn't agree more.

What I want to very briefly bring up today is the issue of employee unhapiness, and how easily it can drag a company's image down.

Case in point: Walmart.

I guess it depends on the person, but I think that we can all agree that in general - perhaps with the exception of the elderly greeters - most Walmart employees don't seem particularly passionate about their jobs. I don't think I'm being unfair by saying that. Some even seem to really, really, really hate their job. (More on that in a bit.)

I'm not judging, mind you, and I am not saying that Walmart employees should act as happy as Starbucks baristas... But I can't help but wonder why they don't. Does Starbucks pay that much better than Walmart? Is serving coffee all day that much more fun than stocking or scanning stuff?

Is there really that much of a difference?

Is it just that working at Starbucks is cool but working at Walmart isn't? Are a person's identity and sense of self worth tied-in with the image of the company they work for? (If Starbucks is cool, then working at Starbucks makes me cool? If Walmart sucks, then working for Walmart means I suck?)

Maybe. I don't know.

I guess I could see a little kid wanting to grow up to be a barista: They make coffee, the coffee makes people happy, so it isn't a bad job. I don't know too many kids who would ever find working register 12 at Walmart fun or cool or rewarding.

Obviously, Walmart has an image problem, and the entire company's identity may be caught in a self-perpetuating vicious cycle of substandard customer-to-brand experiences.

Maybe it's time Walmart did something to change that?

It's really a lot more simple than you'd think: By focusing on any one of the four links in that wheel would affect the other three. Put simply, improving service would improve customer experiences, which would in turn improve the brand's image, which would then boost employees' sense of worth, which would motivate them to provide friendlier service, etc.

Spike is 100% right when he brings up people as being the core element of a company's identity. Beyond professionalism and happiness at one's job, an employee's sense of worth within the context of this identity directly affects the quality of the service they provide in the eyes of their customers.

(It's okay to read that one again. It had some twists.)

Unhappy employees can turn even the best companies into "have beens". In contrast, happy employees can turn even the most average companies into WOM-worthy lovebrands.

Ask yourself: Do you feel special when you buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks? Do you feel special when you buy a BMW or an Apple computer? Do Starbucks, BMW and Apple employees play any role in that?

Do you feel special when you buy something at Walmart or Alltel or Circuit City? Do those companies' employees play any role in that?

Do you think that those employees' sense of worth relative to their jobs has anything to do with how happy or unhappy they are to work there?

Sometimes though, employee unhappiness goes way beyond poor service... and gets a little... trippy. Perfect example: A few months ago, I was walking by the storage systems aisle of my local Walmart when I saw this guy absolutely reach his breaking point - which was kind of entertaining at the time, but is in a very real way symptomatic of the malaise that exists within companies that do very little to inspire, engage or otherwise empower their employees.

Here's a play-by-play of that little incident (see the image at the top of this post):

Walmart guy spots a bin sitting in the middle of the storage systems aisle.
Walmart guy yells "@#&%!!!! Not again!!!!"
Walmart guy grabs the bin and tosses it on a shelf, yelling "I already @#&^%$ put you away three times this morning, %$#&^ %^$#*&!!!"
The bin bounces off the shelf, hits him in the shoulder, and tumbles back to the middle of the aisle.
Walmart guy screams "@#&$%!!!!!!!", grabs the bin, swings it over his head and slams it down on the ground.
Again, but as hard as he can, this time.
Walmart guy kicks the bin into the shelves, still screaming obscenities.
Walmart guy calms down and stops screaming.
Walmart guy calmly walks over to the bin and picks it up.
Walmart guy puts the bin up on its shelf and walks away as if nothing had happened.

Wow, huh?

Okay. There's a huge difference between the apathetic (see "lethargic") cashiers who are just way too bored to crack a smile or make eye contact, and the guy who goes postal on a product he's tired of putting away fifty times a day. I understand that. But still.

It kind of makes you wonder about just how lousy it must be to work at a place like this every day, where very few people feel pride or joy or excitement when it comes to the role they play in the machine that is their workplace.

This isn't just boredom. This kind of catharsis is the result of a pretty oppressive environment.

Without getting too deep in Dr. Phil Territory here, let's just say that when Walmart guy beats up the plastic storage bin, he's really lashing out at Walmart and its customers because quitting isn't an option, and he can't do it any other way.

It goes well beyond feeling unappreciated or undervalued.

It's really more about a sense from this guy that because his job has no finality, no real impact on anything and no relevance, neither does he.

Worse yet: He feels powerless to do anything about it.

... Which is why he beats up the offending but otherwise stoic storage bin.

Even if you zoned out through much of that sorry attempt at Jungian psychobabble, just understand that what this guy is feeling is not healthy.

What you need to take from this is that you don't build positive customer experiences in this kind of environment.

You can't allow your employees to ever feel trapped or helpless. In other words, when they walk by the lobster tank, they shouldn't be able to empathize with the lobsters. When they walk by the meat department and its endless rows of neat little square packages, they shouldn't get a sense that it says something about their place in the world.

They should be thinking about how pretty the rows of meat packages look, and how healthy the lobsters look, and how they're going to help a bunch of customers today. Blue vests to the rescue. Walmart superheroes. They have to understand their value to the Walmart world and that starts by finding value in helping customers have a fantastic shopping experience at Walmart.

Helping people and being paid in smiles is kind of like pouring them the perfect cup of Starbucks' coffee. Think about that sunny parking lot outside. Think about the droves of happy people taking their blue bags of Walmart stuff back to their cars. Think about the smiling yellow dots all over the place. Think about birds chirping and pretty clouds drifting in perfectly blue skies.

Think about those Walmart employees' role in making that world happen and about how good it feels to have that kind of power.

Yes, Walmart could be a fun place to work AND a fun place to shop. But it isn't, and it has nothing but its management to blame for it.

Remember Spike's words of wisdom: Happy employees make happy customers.

Likewise, unhappy employees make unhappy customers.

There are ways to make your employees happy. Perhaps more importantly, there are ways to make your employees feel proud. And no, rewarding them isn't something you can fake or buy off with plaques and pins and little bonuses. It's something that has to feel real.

If you want to inspire your customers, you first have to inspire your employees. If you want to do that, you have to make them feel like they truly are a part of your company and not just worthless pawns.

You have to make them feel like they are on a mission.

You have to make them feel good about the work they do for you.

Does that sound complicated? It really isn't. It's actually the simplest thing in the world. Starbucks is doing it. So is Apple. So is Loreal. So is Nike. So is Coca Cola.

Treat people with respect. Give them something worthwhile to do. Inspire them to be knights in your kingdom... or at least happy to be there for as long as they want to stay. That's it. That's all you really need to do to get things rolling in the right direction.

As always, it really is that simple.

Maybe you don't see it yet, but it is.

I promise.

3 Responses to “Happy Employees = Happy Customers”

  1. Anonymous Anonymous 

    Good points, Olivier.

    And I LOVE the wheel chart. Great job.

  2. Blogger Olivier Blanchard 

    I never thought I'd ever be a wheel chart guy, but here I am. It's a crazy world.


  3. Anonymous Anonymous 

    I am not a Wal-Mart employee, but I know someone who is, and I've listened to some horror stories about the general environment there and the way employees are treated.

    The first thing I was shocked to learn is that the cashiers/checkers are the lowest paid employees in the store. The store's management seems to devalue them in general, and their pay scale doesn't help. So you have a poorly motivated employee who is under pressure to turn over a high dollar amount for the register and who is often treated poorly by the customer. I'm told that checkers have the highest turnover of any position in the store.

    Further, consider these other Wal-Mart policies:

    Employees are under strict orders to avoid overtime at all costs. An employee who incurs overtime will be penalized in one form or another (i.e. they may be "coached", which is basically a management reprimand, or so I understand). To get an idea of how seriously they take this, employees are told to remove their vests when they go off shift and are leaving the store. This is to prevent any customer from identifying them as an employee and attempting to get assistance from them. Even answering a question from a customer (1 minute) would be considered overtime and a "coaching" offense.

    Wal-Mart routinely changes employee work schedules to avoid overtime and holiday pay laws, so that employees have to work on holidays but don't incur any overtime pay.

    Just these two policies are enough to cause a considerable disgruntlement amongst the general workforce.

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