Supervisors Are The Key to High Employee Engagement And Customer Loyalty

Barbara Burke

As customer expectations ratchet higher and higher, companies are looking for creative strategies that will keep their customers from fleeing to the competition. Great customer experiences are the new differentiator. Customers ask themselves, "If I can get fabulous service from a Zappo’s service rep, why I can’t get the same experience when I call every other company?" Top companies are focusing on building the engagement and commitment level of the customer-facing employees.

Employees who are dedicated to delighting customers are game changers. Research has proven a direct correlation between high customer satisfaction and high employee engagement. Employee engagement scores account for as much as half of the variance in customer satisfaction scores. This translates into millions of dollars for companies if they can improve their scores. Studies demonstrated that engaged employees are more productive, more profitable, more customer-focused, safer and less likely to leave their employer.

For customer-centric companies like Zappos, Southwest Airlines and Nordstrom’s, creating high employee engagement is a core business strategy. According to the latest research by the Ascent Group on customer service success, the most highly rated companies focus on the human aspect of customer care. Ascent says, "People matter. Engaged employees are the key to excellent customer service. Engaged employees are employees who feel as though they are truly valued at work; that their efforts directly contribute towards the mission and success of the company."

The definition of "employee engagement" varies. Most experts agree that engaged employees care about the future of the company and dedicate their discretionary effort to making the company successful. In customer service, engaged employees consistently deliver top box customer care by "going the extra mile" for customers.

The sad fact is that as important as these stellar performers are to a company’s profitability and long-term viability, according to Gallup, only a small percentage of employees (28 percent) consider themselves truly engaged. Studies by Gallup, Towers & Perrin, and others point to several key drivers of employee engagement, one of the most important of which is the quality of supervision and support employees receive from their immediate supervisor. According to Gallup, "Supervisors who cultivate positive, caring relationships with agents generate high levels of engagement."

It makes sense that when employees tasked with serving customers have the confidence of knowing their supervisor cares about them, they feel more valued. When these service providers feel valued, they are eager to pass that positive feeling on to their customers by making them feel valued and important.

What makes the supervisors who have highly-engaged employees different, is how they view their relationship with their direct reports. Rather than seeing themselves as an enforcer of performance; they consider their role as a manager and developer of front-line talent. While conventional supervisors rate the person and develop the performance, this new breed of supervisor does just the opposite—they rate the performance and develop the person. Highly effective leaders believe that every person is different and should be treated as such.

Despite the fact that quality supervision is a critical success factor in delivering superior customer service and a key driver to employee engagement, supervisors are among the most under trained and ill-prepared employees in many companies. Most supervisors are experienced service reps promoted from within the service center. New supervisors receive training in the technical and systems side of managing a service operation, but rarely receive in-depth training in coaching and mentoring—two of the basic skills for gaining employee commitment and engagement.

In addition to engagement skills training, supervisors require three more ingredients in order to be successful: time, tools and accountability.

Building engagement requires regular one-to-one interaction. Internal surveys reveal that what service professionals crave most was quality "face time" with their immediate supervisor. Eight out of 10 supervisors asked if they could meet that need said they were too busy with other tasks. But, when these same supervisors examined how they spent their time, they discovered they could easily increase the amount of face time with their team if they let go of "low-value" tasks and activities.

Supervisors need the right tools to open up communication and build trust. Trust is the cornerstone of employee engagement. Leaders gradually build trust by taking the time to get to know each employee. Fables and parables in book form are becoming popular tools for leaders at all levels to use to connect with their employees in meaningful ways. Supervisors find that the shared experience of having read the same book opens doors to discussing crucial issues such as: how to achieve work-life balance, how to live personal and corporate core values, enhancing relationships with co-workers and family members, as well as learning healthy ways for dealing the inherent challenges of working with customers every day.

What gets measured gets done. When supervisors are responsible for employee engagement survey scores, they dedicate the time and energy necessary to meet that goal. Many are delighted to discover that when their team’s engagement scores improved, so did other performance metrics. In a recent survey, supervisors commented that while they already knew how important it was to connect with their people and build a more trusting relationship, a formal measurement tool provided important validation.

It is clear that the key to long-term success and any company’s ability to build customer loyalty and gain more market share to focus on the quality of the experience customers receive from customer-facing employees. Focus the necessary resources on making these important employees feel valued. As corporate executives and HR craft plans for improving customer care, it’s best to keep one basic fact in mind—customer service is the business of people helping people.