The One Thing You Need to Engage Customer Service Employees

How do you engage customer service employees?

This is a question many organizations are trying to answer. Research shows engaged employees provide better service, are more productive, and are less likely to quit.

Companies have tried a lot of tactics. They've implemented annual surveys, formed blue-ribbon committees, and hired expensive consultants. They've tried new perks, incentives, and even gamification to boost morale.

There's still one piece that's missing in most of these engagement efforts, and it's the single most important thing you need if you want to engage your employees.

The missing ingredient is purpose. Here's why:

Employee Engagement Defined

The major consulting firms like Gallup and BlessingWhite have slightly different definitions of the term employee engagement. However, the popular definitions all focus on employees being committed to helping the organization achieve its goals. Here's my preferred definition:

Employee engagement is the extent to which employees are deliberately contributing toward organizational success.

The key to this whole thing is organizational success. When an employee understands what the organization is trying to achieve and commits to helping, it can transform her job from an endless series of mind-numbing tasks into a calling.

You see this in customer service organizations with highly engaged employees. They talk about customer service all the time. They obsess with continuously delivering better service. They're passionate about what they do.

You see the opposite in companies with disengaged employees. Many are just trying to get through their workdays. Some actively work against their employer's success because they're angry, frustrated, and disgruntled.

Creating Clear Purpose

If you want to engage your customer service employees, you need to first create a clear definition of organizational success. In customer service, this is called a customer service vision.

A customer service vision could be your mission, a vision statement, a brand promise, a set of service standards, or any other statement that clearly defines what outstanding service looks like in your company. It doesn't have to be an overly complicated.

The best customer service visions have three hallmarks:

  1. The definition is simple and easily understood.
  2. It describes the type of service you want to achieve for your customers.
  3. It reflects both who you are now and who you aspire to be in the future.

The outdoor gear retailer REI provides an excellent example. Here's its customer service vision (which is also its mission statement):

At REI, we inspire, educate, and outfit for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.

REI employees go to work each day trying to achieve this vision for their customers. You see it in its stores, where knowledgeable associates are passionate about helping customers enjoy the outdoors. You experience it when you contact its customer service team, whose friendly and frictionless approach to service makes any issue easy to solve. The company even supports conservation efforts and organizes volunteers to help maintain the environment.

Sharing Your Purpose

It's not enough to create a customer service vision. Employees need to know three things to be engaged:

  1. What is our customer service vision?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. How can I contribute?

This is where it gets tricky.

Some organizations don't have a customer service vision. Others have one, but it's not clearly defined or it's never been shared with employees. Still others have shared their vision with employees but have never explained what it means.

I worked with one organization that had created a set of five service standards to serve as its customer service vision. The good news was 95 percent of employees could recall all five standards. The bad news was there was universal disagreement about what they meant to each employee's daily work. Even the senior leadership team disagreed on their meaning. The words sounded good on paper, but they didn't provide any real direction.

Your customer service vision can't be something you write at an off-site management retreat and then forget about. It needs to be a living, breathing statement if you want employees to follow it.

Here are just a few places where employees should be indoctrinated:

  • recruiting;
  • onboarding;
  • training;
  • processes and procedures; and
  • performance management.

Everywhere they look, employees should encounter that customer service vision. It should serve as a shining beacon that guides them whenever they're unsure about how to serve a customer.

Jeff Toister is founder and president of Toister Performance Solutions and author of  Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It.