10 things internal communications professionals can learn from customer experience.

1st November 2018

Great customer experience is based on sound customer insight. Most companies realise this, and know the value of understanding their customers. But it’s not always mirrored internally.

1. Listen to true feelings

Communication, culture and experience specialist Thecla Schreuders says: “Organisations find out so much about their customers: what they like, what they do, and how, where and when they do it. They don’t always think about colleagues in that way, and they really should.”

Too often, she adds, employee research is an infrequent box-ticking exercise designed to support or benchmark the status quo, rather than to effect change. “We could certainly do a lot more internally and gather data in more imaginative ways.”

David Conway, director of KPMG Nunwood, which tracks customer experience, agrees. “Historically, companies have focused on voice of customer. But the customer doesn’t know what internal problems the business has – the employee does. So increasingly, voice of employee is crucial.”

Rachel Haworth, customer experience director at Coventry Building Society, says the same skill and rigour needs to be applied to employee research as to customer research.

“In customer experience, we use a lot of independent research, so we’d always ask somebody impartial either from the research department or an external organisation to get people’s opinions," says Rachel.

"There’s a real skill in doing research, acting independently, asking open questions and not reacting to people’s responses. If you’re going to gather employee feedback on something, consider how you’re going to get the truth. It’s about encouraging people to tell you what they really think, rather than what they think you want to hear.”

2. Love spreads

It’s no coincidence that many of the organisations that deliver the best customer experiences are also among the best places to work.

One of them is Coventry Building Society, ranked 11th on KPMG Nunwood’s list of the best companies for customer experience and 73rd on the Sunday Times’ list of best companies to work for.

Rachel Haworth says there’s no doubt the two things are linked. “It’s a fantastic place to work. People can really see the organisation’s values coming to life in the decisions it makes. It’s a very genuine organisation.”

This is important, because recent research by the Institute of Customer Service shows that customers can sense how engaged employees are. The institute found that engaged employees put in more effort, more empathy and more innovation. And if customers sensed that employees were more engaged, they felt more satisfied and more likely to buy. Engaged employees also become brand advocates who help attract more customers to the business.

Thecla Schreuders says: “If there’s a consistency between the internal experience and the customer experience, then there’s substance to the stories that the brand tells about itself.”

3. Act on feedback and fix things

Listening alone is not enough – being able to close that feedback loop is crucial.

Adrian Swinscoe is the author of How To Wow: 68 Effortless Ways To Make Every Customer Experience Amazing, and has worked in-house and as a consultant with numerous organisations. He says: “In very simple terms, if you want to improve things, ask people what they think is broken or difficult or doesn’t help them, and go fix it.

“It’s important for internal comms to listen and then act, and tell people that they’re doing it.”

And if you’re not confident you can address the issues people raise, it may be better not to raise people’s expectations, says Adrian.

“If you don’t think you can act, well then don’t bother sending out the survey or the piece of communication. Because if you can’t follow up on it, what’s the point?”

4. Talk to and with people, not at them

Internal communications practitioners need to spend less time thinking about communications, says David Conway of KPMG Nunwood, and more time “creating understanding”.

“I could read a piece of communication and not really understand it,” he says, “but if I talk about it with my colleagues, I come to understand what it means for me – I internalise it more and listen to others’ points of view about it.

“Some companies are fantastic at this – they have customer encounter sessions every day to collect insight and knowledge from customers in different ways and turn it into something that makes sense for the business to deal with. Those same organisations tend to also be very adept at encouraging employees to discuss things and internalise them.

“It’s a move from employee satisfaction surveys to ongoing dialogue with employees about experiences they have.”

Rachel Haworth of Coventry Building Society agrees that organisations need to pay attention not just to what communications they send out, but “how they land”.

“If you make a communication or a journey difficult for that person to understand, or they have to put a lot of effort into engaging with it, then you will significantly reduce the success of whatever you’re trying to do,” says Rachel.

Adrian Swinscoe adds: “If you talk at people, they’re less likely to listen. How many marketing emails do we get? How many TV ads do we skip? If anything, we’ve trained ourselves not to pay attention.

“That kind of broadcast communication is quite selfish. It’s about the company and what they want to say. It’s not very tailored or very relevant to the people that you’re trying to communicate with.

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t broadcast out information as and when it’s appropriate, but as well as trying to be interesting, we should also think about being interested, and useful.”

5. It’s about the journey

Customer experience professionals have realised that understanding consumer touchpoints isn’t enough. No matter how slick each interaction might be in isolation, they need to be considered together.

Companies have to take a step back and look at the entire customer journey: for example, planning and going on holiday, buying a home or upgrading a pay TV package.

This focus on journeys pays off, according to annual customer experience surveys by McKinsey. Businesses that do well at delivering journeys also see better revenue growth, customer satisfaction and repeat purchasing. Doing well on individual touchpoints alone, rather than the journey as a whole, is less strongly linked to these measures, McKinsey researchers said in a 2013 Harvard Business Review article.

David Conway of KPMG Nunwood says: “We see organisations increasingly taking the techniques and tools to define customer journeys and using them to define and design employee interactions internally.”

It’s happening at Coventry Building Society, where customer experience director Rachel Haworth is working with the HR team to improve the recruitment and onboarding journey.

“We’re looking at the whole experience," Rachel explains. "The process, the communication, the timeliness of everything, how long it is between communications, if it clearly articulates what’s going to happen next, if it makes the experience easy for the employee.

“When that first day comes, how do new starters get their laptop and their phone and be ready to work?”

6. Choose to care

Ultimately, a commitment to great employee or customer experiences comes from a company’s culture.

Adrian Swinscoe says: “There are a lot of firms that try to focus on customer experience. The ones that are really good at it don’t really talk about it because it’s just part of what they do. You don’t need a customer experience department necessarily; it’s just the way the whole organisation looks at things.”

Adrian believes that prioritising great experiences, whether internal or external, is a choice.

“You decide what you want to do, you decide what matters, you decide if you’re going to trust your people and how you’re going to run things.”

It’s why when Rachel Haworth of Coventry Building Society went to the organisation’s board asking to make improvements to the way customers register a bereavement, the answer was yes, even though she couldn’t point to any balance sheet benefit. Looking after customers is deeply ingrained in the organisation’s culture, and what more important time to get it right than when they’re grieving.

“I told our leaders I couldn’t give them any ROI,” says Rachel. “I just thought it was something we should do.”

7. Get the boss on board

Customers in the US are 15 times more likely to have a great customer experience than those in the UK, according to KPMG Nunwood. Why? Because the organisations’ leaders have bought into it.

David Conway says US leaders tend to recognise the importance of employee experience, and how closely linked it is to customer experience.

“It’s not just about putting your customers first, it’s about putting your employees first, and they will treat the customer well. There’s almost this implicit belief in US businesses that this is the case.”

Rachel Haworth adds: “Getting leaders on board is essential. If organisations have good values that come from the board, and the board lives and breathes those values, action will happen. If they’re just a piece of paper with words on, and employees see the board making different decisions, they will act differently as well.”

8. Everyone’s different

Smart businesses know that their customers are not one big homogenous blob – there are countless subgroups with different priorities, needs, attitudes and feelings towards your business and what it provides. Marketing people call this segmentation, and it’s a key part of any marketing plan. We should think about employees in the same kind of way, says Thecla Schreuders.

A better understanding of different kinds of employees with different needs empowers internal communicators to give them what they need.

“We have to try to address the need that customers don’t even know they have,” says Thecla. “We have to ask, how can we light those fires in our colleagues?”

9. Change behaviour

Consumer-facing businesses are experts at changing behaviour. After all, the entire purpose of a business is to change what people do: to get them to spend their money with you rather than your competitors. And yet influencing the behaviour of those people they do have the most control over – their employees – can prove tough.

Thecla says changing colleagues’ behaviour is “the holy grail”.

“A lot of internal colleague behaviour change activity is around sanctions – if you don’t do this, you’ll suffer the consequences. That’s difficult, because people don’t respond well to sanctions.”

Businesses need to use a range of methods to change behaviour, including positive incentives to behave in a certain way, and nudges that guide people towards a default choice that benefits them – for example, automatically opting employees into pension schemes.

10. Making memories

Great experiences sh ould be memorable. David Conway, director of KPMG Nunwood, believes three elements of any experience are crucial in creating those memories: the first impression, the last impression, and the emotional “peak”.

In the consumer sphere, this knowledge might guide hotels to train receptionists to create highly positive and memorable first and last impressions for guests as they arrive and leave. For employees, it might mean paying close attention to the onboarding and induction process.

“If you design a customer experience with an emotional peak in it then you’re much more likely to remember that,” says David. “And there’s no reason that it wouldn’t play out inside the organisation and make employee experience equally as memorable."

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