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How Are Your Employees Affecting Your Brand?

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No matter what your product or service, your employees are the most powerful representation of your brand.

We have all dealt with the customer service representative that either builds loyalty or breaks it based on our experience. And while new customers were once thought of as the lifeblood of successful companies, current customers and customer loyalty has become more valuable than ever in our age of social media.

Consumers share stories of their interactions with businesses on social channels, becoming word-of-mouth marketers. Those in the marketing profession have recognized this trend, and have been spending more time on current customers by revamping what customer service means, investing more in customer relationship management (CRM) systems and building teams to improve communication with customers.

Even more important to your brand than your customers, are your employees.

Employees are also social networkers who are seen as sources of information about the company as a whole. If your company has 20,000 employees, then you have that many spokespeople as well. Sites like Glassdoor are not only looked at by prospective employees, but also by current and future customers. To this end, rating systems such as the Corporate Equality Index are places both employees and customers go to research a company's practices toward its employees, and this can directly affect whether these groups buy or apply. The Corporate Equality Index was launched to highlight corporate practices toward GLBT employees. What resulted is a yellow page-like directory of companies who have GLBT-supportive practices and policies, and those are the companies that this community buys from.

So what does this have to do with engagement?

Engaged employees who feel supported by their company provide more robust CRM systems for customers, because they care about the customer experience in the same way their company cares about them. Customer service employees interact with customers on the phone and through email, building or destroying the brand. Developers create products that are a reflection of the brand, and by extension, impact the customer experience through the employees who provide customer support.

Ultimately, employees are the marketers of your company as well as your brand ambassadors. And engaged employees are going to be your best advocates for acquiring and retaining customers.

While I was the Head of Training at American Express where the brand is the product, the mantra was always "Happy employees make happy customers." Subsequently, American Express placed a huge emphasis on employee satisfaction surveys, with particular focus on the aspects that engage employees. Management bonuses were tightly tied to employee engagement, rendering the data collected from employee surveys critical to an individual's advancement in the company.

While at Cisco as the Chief Diversity Officer, I found that year in and year out, workplace flexibility, the ability for the employee to choose how and when she or he gets to work, consistently made it to the top of the list when it came to employee engagement. This is surprisingly true regardless of gender, ethnicity or age.

I. The Value of Offering Flexibility

The earliest pioneers of flexibility in the workplace focused on freedom to work as well as choice in how we work. The idea was that creating new ways of working would, on a broader scale, change the landscape of employment. According to the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College: "Workplace flexibility has a dramatic positive impact on employee commitment and is one of the most powerful components of the business case for flexibility. Commitment is higher and burnout is lower for employees who have access to flexibility compared with those who do not have it. In fact, the dramatic effect of flexibility on employee commitment is one of the most powerful components of the business case for flexibility."

Engaged employees are concerned with producing quality work and believe that she or he has a stake in the organization. This sense of ownership is more valuable than stock options, and results in the best brand ambassadors any company could have. These employees may not be able to articulate marketing slogans, but they speak from their hearts about the company and its products and services.

Significant research has been done to give merit to these claims: Research by the Corporate Leadership Council suggests that every 10 percent improvement in commitment can increase an employee's level of discretionary effort by 6 percent and performance by 2 percent; highly committed employees perform at a 20 percent higher level than non-committed employees.

Research by Hewitt Associates finds that double-digit growth companies have 39 percent more highly-engaged employees and 45 percent fewer highly-disengaged employees than single-digit growth companies.

In a Deloitte survey, employees were asked whether their managers granted them enough flexibility to meet personal and/or family responsibilities. The employees who agreed that they had access to flexibility scored a dramatic 32 percent higher in their commitment to the company than those without flexibility.

We implemented flexible work practices under the umbrella of diversity and inclusion at Cisco. However, we found it was a challenge to get some of the more traditional leaders to buy into the program because they were concerned about productivity, even when provided the statistics above. We had fewer than 2 percent of employees enroll, as was the norm for other companies implementing similar programs at the time. However, the boost to engagement was huge. As one female engineer said, "Just knowing this is an option makes me want to stay at Cisco." Even in challenging times, when Cisco was focused on doing more with less which resulted in increased turnover, many employees stayed simply because of the flexibility options.

We can clearly make the case that employees build or destroy a brand, and we know that engagement is the top indicator of employees being brand ambassadors. What logically follows is a company's increased effort to implement flexibility practices that build engagement, and ultimately, increase customer loyalty and sales. This seems even more obvious considering most flexibility programs can be implemented at a low cost. So then, why don't more companies re-direct their marketing dollars toward employee engagement?

II. Cultural Change: The Hardest Part

While many companies recognize employee engagement is important, most put little to no resources behind it. If there is an engagement group, it is typically a mere support function within HR, which is the hardest department from which to drive this type of cultural change within the corporate environment.

The right place to start is with your company's marketers. They need to understand that employees are, in fact, their most important market segment. If marketing buys into the case for employee engagement as a way to build the brand, then marketers will put both the energy and the marketing dollars behind employee engagement. With employee survey data as the market research, the next step is to partner with marketers to facilitate employee engagement focus groups and ultimately aid in the change management required to launch successful employee engagement programs. Launching these programs will also require change management from leadership, which needs to appreciate employees as a customer segment.

This approach would not only revolutionize the way corporations think about employees, but also help balance the overwhelming emphasis on shareholders that has de-humanized so many corporations. If attracting and retaining customers is the goal, then employees are the key.