Treat Employees Like Customers (B2-C1/v994)


Today’s companies will stop at nothing to ensure that their customer’s experience is pleasant and meaningful. But what if they directed some of the same energy toward understanding and engaging their employees?


Diana Dosik:  When my best friend got up to speak at my wedding, her opening line was « Welcome to Diana’s dream ». She then explained how trapping a hundred of my closest friends and family on a remote island, which is what I did for my wedding, represented a mini-version of a long-held fantasy to build a commune.

I always loved the idea of designing my own community, especially the idea of a small group of people who really get each other because when people get you they understand what you do and why, the journey you’re on and they shape your world in ways big and small to make that journey easier.

Great companies can do this too. They can make you feel like they get you, like their product can help you on your journey and they know how valuable that is. Marketers today use an arsenal of sophisticated tools and techniques from analyzing Facebook likes and tweets to going into customers’ homes and watching them interact with their products to building what they literally call customer journey maps, which are detailed diagrams of every touch point the company has with a customer, all to understand what makes buying difficult and how they can make it easier.

All told companies spend a trillion dollars a year worldwide trying to understand and shape the journeys of their customers. Now a trillion is an astounding number. What’s more astounding to me as an expert in organizational behavior is that companies spend a thousand times less understanding and shaping the journeys of the people they depend on most, their own employees.

And it shows. Ask a chief marketer what makes your customers shopping experience easy or difficult and she’ll have a 20-minute answer probably segmented by customer type. But ask the chief of almost any other department in the same company what makes your employee’s life at work easy or difficult and you’ll be met with a blank stare. In fact, when we ask business leaders how much of their time they spent understanding what their employees do and why they do it, they said less than 5%.

Now it’s not the companies don’t care about their employees; they do. Employee engagement is huge and you can see it in everything from new employee training programs to foosball tables and smoothie bars. The issue is that many of these efforts miss the mark because they don’t get to the heart of what really drives our behavior and they don’t get there because companies don’t use the same sophisticated tools, techniques and theories on their employees that they’re already using on their customers.

Great marketers rely on two fundamental disciplines, game theory, which is the idea that people act in their own perceived best interests and sociology which helps them predict what those best interests might be. Now, obviously, telemarketers haven’t gotten this memo, thinking it’s in your best interest to be interrupted during dinner, but Apple is genius at this.

When they opened the Apple Store, they wanted to understand the customer experience so they tracked the customer’s journey and found several potential pain points or challenges that would make the customer leave without buying anything. Things like long lines to pay, confusion about which product to buy, fear that it might be difficult to use.

So they introduced instant checkout to eliminate the lines and demo tables for easy sampling and Genius Bar appointments for easy Q&A, all to eliminate those pain points and to make buying an Apple product feel like the smart, easy choice. And it works. Apple sold 170 million iPhones last year and earned accolades as a master of customer touch points.

Like in the Apple Store, everywhere you turn is a consumer. Companies are trying to get you, to align your interests with theirs, but contrast that with your experience as an employee. How much of your experience at work feels carefully constructed to eliminate pain points? How much of your behavior is thoughtfully nudged into alignment with the company’s goals? How well does your company really get you?  For many the answer is not that well and that’s where I often come in. I’m hired by companies in crisis because they can’t get what they need from their employees.

Last year I was at a Fortune 500 company that was losing market share to competitors because they could not get their employees to speed up product development. The head of development gave rousing speeches about the importance of speed and even introduced a performance bonus for going faster. But none of it worked because no one realized that the goal of going faster was completely at odds with the journey of the product developer.

See while the company aspired to speed, the path to product approval was painfully slow and political. Developers needed to get over a hundred informal sign-offs from people who would determine their raises and promotions. Now none of this was written down. It wasn’t formal, but developers knew that bypassing these steps meant career suicide. So in this context, wasting lots of valuable time getting sign-off was actually the reasonable, rational strategy for every product developer even though the result had the poor head of development tearing his hair out. In other words, the product developers weren’t slow because they were stupid, it’s because they were smart. Going fast would have meant damaging their own careers and so, surprise-surprise, they weren’t doing it.

In fact, the bonus for speed, which was meant to be motivating, was actually just frustrating because it couldn’t be achieved and was just another sign that the company didn’t get the world that they lived in. It was only when the company removed those pain points and aligned the developers’ interests with theirs were the developers able and happy to meet the company’s need for speed.

Now companies today just can’t afford this kind of ignorance about what their employees do and why and, increasingly, employees won’t tolerate it either. In particular, entitled, self-obsessed Millennials like myself expect a thoughtfully-designed working environment not to mention a say in that design. The good news is companies don’t need to spend a thousand times more, they just need to pay more attention in the right way.

Google is great at this. They examined the employee journeys of women and found a pain point around maternity leave. It turned out that many women felt they needed more than the three months Google offered and so they quit. So in order to make staying easier and more rational, Google extended paid maternity from 12 weeks to 18 weeks. Now I know this is still absurdly short by many countries’ standards, but in the U.S., it was a game changer and they increased the retention of new moms by 50%. So they aligned the interests of women with the interests of the company and created immense value for both. Eight months pregnant myself, I cannot emphasize this win-win strategy strongly enough.

So business leaders have a golden opportunity. They can understand and shape employee journeys the same way they do customer journeys. In fact, they can do it even better because they have more touch points with employees than with customers. I’m not saying it’s easy. It takes time, energy and some often very uncomfortable conversations about what’s really going on in the organization, but it’s critical and it’s not just in business.

In schools, think about the gap between the goal of student learning and what it actually takes to get good grades. Or in sports, between the desire for teamwork and the celebration of individual stats and achievement. We can bridge these gaps, but only if we’re more thoughtful about the journeys we create for each other. We need to deeply understand the incentives at play and reshape them so that what we want and what the individual wants is the same thing. Like in the Apple store or on my island commune. So if there is an approach to understanding and shaping behavior that works in the marketplace, why not bring it to the workplace and any other place where it could make life better. Thank you.


1. Companies spend an ________ $1T a year trying to understand their customers.
2. Many employee engagement efforts don’t get to the heart of what really ________ employee behavior.
3. Apple sold 170 million iPhones last year and earned ________ as a master of customer touch points.
4. It ________ that many American women feel that the amount of maternity leave offered by their companies is insufficient.
5. Eight months pregnant myself, I cannot emphasize this ________ strategy strongly enough.


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