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January 7, 2013

Treating Employees Like Customers

Posted by Nandini S. (View Profile | View All Posts) at 6:15 AM


A friend of mine is the chief operating officer of a prominent real estate organization. She often tells me how extensively the business had changed over the past three decades.

For her, one of the most noteworthy transformations is how her company views their employees. When she started at the company, people who interviewed for both middle management and leadership positions could generally be characterized as able to see themselves at the firm the rest of their careers. They would work their way up through the ranks, learn from the best colleagues, and retire with the knowledge that they and the company had grown together. It was a symbiotic relationship. The company thrived because of the hard work and innovation of its employees. They, in turn, succeeded because the organization provided them with the ideal framework from which to create better products, make new discoveries, or, in the case of a non-science sector, like real estate, forge more efficient and lasting relationships with clients.

That world - the one my friend became part of as a young woman some 30 years ago - is long gone. Prospective hires come to her during interviews with lists of demands. They're very polite about asking about things, so maybe 'demand' isn't the best term. These prospects think they're making requests. But make no mistake about it: My friend the COO interprets these to be demands when she remembers the way corporations hired employees a generations ago. A lot of these organizations are bigger than ever. So why are employees not as interested in forging a long-term relationship with particular companies? I think a significant reason is, although many of these organizations have spent a lot of time improving the ways they interact with customers, what they haven't done is to think about how the workforce has transformed as well. If companies were as responsive to their employees as they were to their client base, they'd find that many of the structures within their organization to address employee concerns are vestiges of another age. 

Think about the retailing revolution that's taken place within the last 15 years. Take bookselling as a perfect example. For hundreds of years, a merchant stocked a huge inventory and waited for people to come browse the shelves. Today, the bookselling giants can order a book from the publisher after a customer orders it online. And they can track exactly what their customer base prefers at any moment. Can you imagine if companies around the world took a cue from these bookselling success stories and treated their employee-engagement channels with the same kind of innovation? 

Organizations are unknowingly creating situations where employees are jumping from job to job in order to burnish their resumes with the hopes of finally landing at a place where they can innovate and thrive. The cost of this employee churn to the organization is significant to the bottom line. It translates into longer product development cycles - not to mention the cost of getting more new employees situated (i.e., processing their paperwork and training them). Wouldn't it be great if enterprises were constantly pushing the envelope when it came to their employees? If they treated employees like customers, they could not only retain talent; they could expand and multiply that talent. 

But, like customers, employees cannot all be slotted into one homogenous bunch. Alongside that young achiever who crowd-sources solutions on his hand-held, is also the senior leader who prefers a huddle with his managers in his corner office. And, of course there's a whole spectrum in between. Perhaps, then organizations must approach the challenge with the intent to segment and customize -  also taking cognizance of geo and cultural nuances - to build up a long-lasting culture where employees are always considering how to perform better because they know that by doing so, the company that cares for them will perform better too. It's that whole symbiotic relationship thing.

Think about it this way. If your best clients are thinking about moving on, your company is in trouble. It's no different when it comes to your employees.

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