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Elevate Employees, Don’t Eliminate Them

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Ryan W. Buel for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit:  Alex Eben Meyer

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Unlock value by connecting them with customers.

A traumatic discontinuity like the Covid-19 pandemic presents an opportunity to reconnect on fresh terms—with families, friends, coworkers, and even ourselves. For businesses this moment provides a chance to reimagine the role employees play in customer service. Even before the pandemic, technology was increasingly making it possible for employers to automate interactions with customers; thus many managers will instinctively look for ways to eliminate jobs. Indeed, the last major global shock—the 2008 recession—led to what economists call a “jobless recovery,” as companies found that they could get by with fewer employees.

Taking that approach now would be a mistake. To be sure, some efficiencies will lead to the elimination of certain roles. But most managers should focus on elevating employees, not eliminating them—on changing their jobs to unlock more value by allowing them to have deeper and more-meaningful connections with customers in the moments that count.

In an article titled “Operational Transparency” (HBR, March–April 2019), I explained how showing the work that employees do for customers can lead to higher customer satisfaction, loyalty, and willingness to pay. The fundamental driver of this effect is the power of connection. When customers see how employees are working to solve their problems, they place greater value on that work.

From this insight and related research, I have developed a post-pandemic playbook for employers centered on five key pieces of advice:

  • Create the conditions for employees to connect with customers when it matters most.
  • Help employees make more of these meaningful connections by shifting the boundaries of their work.
  • Find ways for customers to lend a hand, which they will gladly do if employees have created a meaningful connection with them. That will lead to further efficiencies.
  • Ensure that employees can see the impact of their work on the lives of their customers, which will make their work more rewarding and engaging.
  • Invest some of the value created by employees’ redesigned roles in increased compensation and improved scheduling—which can make their jobs more sustainable and realize further value.

The most obvious application of this playbook is in sectors where interactions between customers and employees are routine. But recent experience reveals that the potential for employees to foster connections with customers is far greater than we might have imagined. For example, during the pandemic many people came to know the mail carriers and sanitation workers who served their homes, just as they had previously done with hairdressers, bartenders, baristas, and other service workers. Indeed, in sectors where interactions have historically been the most transactional, the gains for organizations that enable their employees to connect when it counts stand to be especially dramatic.

Connecting When It Counts

When people perceive that a lot is riding on an interaction—that their physical, emotional, social, psychological, or economic well-being may be at risk in some way—it is a moment of truth for the organization, because the experiences customers have will define or redefine how they perceive it and engage with it going forward. Leaving customers to fend for themselves can make them less confident in their choices, less trusting of the company overall, and less likely to remain loyal. When employees are well positioned to respond to customers’ emergent needs, they can create breakthrough value by reframing the service their employer provides and differentiating the business from its competitors.

This effect is so powerful that customers need not necessarily even engage with an employee for benefits to arise. Simply the knowledge that someone is readily available and willing to help can make a profound difference, increasing customer confidence, satisfaction, trust, and long-term loyalty. For example, in one field experiment I conducted with Michelle Shell of Boston University, customers who applied for a loan and proactively received a text from their loan officer with an invitation to phone if they had any questions were 16% more likely to move forward with the loan (if approved) than customers who received no such invitation—even if they never actually accepted it.

Service is the business of people helping people, and people are born with the tools to help one another. Empathy enables us to understand how others are feeling and tailor our responses accordingly. Indeed, many organizations screen job candidates for empathy, attention to detail, and service-mindedness. Yet after people with these qualities are hired, the design of their jobs may prevent them from doing what they would otherwise do well naturally. They may lack the time, the resources, the motivation, or the discretion to make connections. Addressing those problems can unlock considerable value for customers, companies, and even employees themselves.

Shifting the Boundaries of the Job

How can leaders create the conditions for more-meaningful connections? Paradoxically, the best place to start is precisely at the point where technology or some other intervention could take over an activity. Instead of asking, Can I eliminate this employee?, ask, Can I tailor this job to eliminate routinized, dead-end encounters with customers and allow the employee to respond fluidly to their needs while developing a bond with them, however briefly?

For example, Amazon Go opened its first full-scale supermarket in Seattle—after nearly 10 years of incubating and piloting the concept in smaller formats—just as the pandemic was taking hold. At the store visual-imaging technology tracks items as they’re taken from shelves, so customers can bag as they shop and walk out when they’re finished; their accounts are charged automatically. The most visibly laborious part of shopping excursions—checkout—has been automated away.

Yet Amazon Go still relies quite heavily on employees. They’re just not behind a cash register. They’re out on the floor, available to assist shoppers and chip away at a perennial pain point in grocery stores: finding what the customer seeks. Clad in bright orange uniforms, employees restock shelves and tidy displays while explaining the store’s technology to shoppers and offering guidance about products.

As people learn how to shop in Amazon Go stores, and as Amazon figures out how to automate restocking, the company may move to a lighter staffing model. But an alternative and differentiating path would be to elevate the employees, enabling those in particular departments to create even more value for customers by accumulating specialized product knowledge and taking on an increasingly consultative and relational role. Honing their expertise through customer interactions, domain specialists might, for example, be able to share advice about wine pairings or recommend popular and nutritious school-lunch items for fifth-graders. Perhaps Amazon could support these elevated employees by connecting them with its recommendation engine or arming them with the technology to help customers place Prime delivery orders of items not carried in the store—above-and-beyond experiences that would play to the company’s strengths.

Simply the knowledge that an employee is readily available and willing to help can increase customer confidence, satisfaction, trust, and long-term loyalty.

Giving employees time and space to double down on the tasks humans are best equipped to handle—connecting with other humans, using empathy to understand problems and ingenuity to solve them—could enable them to create considerably more value than they did in their original roles. If their jobs become more relational, employees will need training and systems to support their development, resources and discretion to facilitate graceful responses to unanticipated customer queries, and a means to channel ideas and feedback to leadership about how to enhance their roles and the company’s offerings even further.

There are other ways to help employees connect in the moments that count. In some cases cross-training can create slack by enabling coworkers to cover one another on routine assignments when customers require attention. In other cases work can be shifted to supply chain partners, as when manufacturers apply price tags to products or distributors place inventory on the selling floor. To be sure, leading companies have long prioritized frontline encounters. But the constraints imposed by the pandemic have forced us to question conventional wisdom about how work is best accomplished.

Sometimes, through a thoughtful redesign, tasks can be eliminated altogether. The company Getaway, which rents out tiny cabins in the woods, has done away with many fixtures of the traditional hospitality business: It has no front desk, no concierge, no turn-down service, no room service, and no housekeeping during the guests’ stay. The model is designed to let people feel that they’re walking into their own cabin in the woods. When they arrive, they use a key code to access a meticulously clean space. A “cabinkeeper” will have left a handwritten, personalized note, along with a “s’more kit” or some other amenity, to make guests feel welcome.

Getaway aims to minimize customer-employee interactions so that guests can share meaningful moments with each other and unplug in nature. However, every cabin has a landline for reaching staffers immediately with questions or if help is needed. The company’s customer service model treats each guest like a dear friend staying in a private home. Team members use guests’ first names, make things happen quickly, and add a personal touch whenever possible. Stripping away unnecessary tasks allows Getaway employees to create an emotional connection with guests when doing so really matters.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Ryan W. Buell is a professor of business administration in the Technology and Operations Management unit at Harvard Business School, where he is the faculty chair of the Transforming Customer Experiences executive education program.


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