THE BLOG
05/01/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When Engagement Means Employees Like Each Other More Than Customers

It's 7:45 a.m. on a cold damp morning and it's just started to snow. My wife and I are waiting outside of Boston South Station for the Amtrak staff to allow passengers to board the 8:10 a.m. Acela train bound for New York City. Due to a blizzard in New York, all of the airports are shut down so the train is our only option. And after being stranded first in Denver, and last night in Boston, we are eager to get home. Like many of our fellow passengers, we are road weary.

But none of that seems to be of interest to the Amtrak crew - from the conductor on down. My wife and I, as well as others in the crowd, notice the camaraderie of employees, and many comment on how friendly and helpful the Amtrak employees are - to one another. We see a good many smiles, handshakes, and small talk about the weather and their kids. But surprisingly, no contact with customers. This is all internal. The passengers are getting none of the love.

I'm a consultant, educator and author, and I know an engaged team when I see one. I only wish they would be engaged with customers.

I describe this phenomenon as "The Club." These employees think of customers as the cost of keeping the team together; the price that needs to be paid. They draw meaning from being with one another, not necessarily creating or delivering something to a customer. Ultimately, they see the customer as the necessary evil.

It's something I've begun to see over and over again. By one measure, these kinds of employee groups demonstrate exactly half of what we hope they would - support for one another, willingness to help, and team spirit. But, HR and management forgot one simple phrase, and as a result, they missed the point.

The phrase is "so that," a phrase often used by my partner Dave Ulrich to remind HR professionals that our initiatives - in training and other areas - are means, not ends; that the purpose of teamwork is to accomplish something for customers. We want engaged employees to be working effectively together so that customers will be better serves and therefore want to continue to patronize the business or service.

Amtrak seems to have forgetten this very important point. And, as a result, they may indeed have happy employees, but they certainly haven't been able to convert that to happy customers. Imagine the feeling of standing a cold platform, in winter, watching employees sincerely enjoy one another's company - just not the company of their customers.

So, I am making a resolution. Next time I experience this, which is likely to be sometime today, I am going to say something to these employees. When it happens again - at Starbucks, at the movies, or in the supermarket - I am going to say, "I am glad you enjoy each others company, but please remember that it is customers like me that make your job possible. So, would you please pay a little less attention to one another, and perhaps a bit more to me and the 15 other people waiting behind me on line?"

Then I'm going to write a letter to the HR department of this company and suggest that they continue to focus on engagement and team building, but shift the direction slightly to engagement so that customers are better served.

Try it yourself. And let me know what happens.

Jon Younger is a Partner of The RBL Group, a firm providing consulting and executive education in strategic HR and leadership. Jon leads the Strategic HR practice area and is also a Director of the RBL Institute. He is co-author, with Dave Ulrich and three other principals at The RBL Group, of "HR Competencies" (SHRM, 2007), "HR Transformation" (McGraw-Hill, July 2009) and many articles, and last year logged client work in 35 countries.