Employee insight into customer needs

When organisations are trying to gain a better understanding of their customers they frequently overlook an invaluable source of knowledge – employee insight. It is particularly surprising when you consider employees’ knowledge of their company, their market and, vitally, their customers is a cache of accessible information. What’s more, gaining feedback on customers from employees is fast and not costly.

Front Line and Head Office Customer Knowledge

Any organisation with staff that have a touch-point with the customer has an inbuilt understanding of the customer which is often untapped. Customer facing employees, be they in branches, call-centres or involved in face to face meetings often seem rather invisible to those in Head Office but they are the ones dealing with customers, day in, day out, not Head Office staff. Head Office staff tend to get their experience of customers from data, and therefore have confidence that they understand and can predict customers. There is undoubtedly a value to this type of data as a tool to guide decision-making, but the hands-on insight of customer facing employees provides a real cutting edge to this data.

Graphic showing how employees' customer knowledge is harvested.

We have found instances where the input from employees was better than that provided by the customer. This is because customer facing employees understand both the customer and their organisation. They know when processes stand in the way of their being able to serve their customers and have often thought and worked ways round corporately placed barriers. Staff also know the impact on the business and can be keen observers of where money is perceived to be ‘wasted’, be they bonused on it or not.

In addition to understanding customers and the customer experience, employees are a vital source of knowledge on a wide variety of customer issues, which could include:

  • adding insight to their own staff survey (where separate areas score differently or there’s been a low response rate)
  • providing a better, cheaper solution to a problem than the options posed by management pointing out unnoticed problems and offering solutions
  • understanding why a promising initiative failed.

Gathering Employee Insight

Like any invaluable source, the approach to maximising the value of employees’ knowledge of customers to the business needs to be professional. The use of an external, trained and experienced facilitator will provide a productive environment of anonymity to any feedback sessions. We are often told by staff that they wouldn’t say anything different in front of their managers but this is not then borne out in the ensuing confidential conversation. An external facilitator can also provide an open mind where there is no vested interest, no hidden agenda, nor any personal view of particular members of staff which can colour findings.

Gaining Employee Buy-In

In the area of change management, where new initiatives and procedures are to be introduced, buy-in from employees is vital. Organisations need to get any initiative right first time to avoid perceptions of initiative-overload when a failed initiative is replaced by another and so on. Employee feedback on the customer experience can identify where resistance might lie and point to potential barriers enabling these issues to be addressed by appropriate communications and more effective implementation plans. They can also comment on the most effective way of implementing this change from the customers’ perspective. If employees can identify solutions to these barriers there is an even greater chance of success as they will have a greater degree of ownership.

Things that get in the way of employees behaving in the way the organisation wants them to can often be as simple and inexpensive as the need for recognition, via communication and not necessarily remuneration, and an understanding of why, where and how they add value via feedback. Surveys and appraisals are not ‘tuned to the right frequency’ to be appropriate for picking up these cost-free motivators.

Head Office should not necessarily be excluded from this process and key employees, both senior and junior need to be included in the research sample if there is to be balance and alignment of Head Office and the rest of the organisation. In a B2B market organisation the Head Office employees may indeed be the key customer facing employees e.g. account managers, customer service managers, project managers etc.

Using Employee Feedback – Two Examples: Retail & B2B

With support from Customer Champions, B&Q wanted to make a radical change to their Returns policy. It was at first assumed that staff would welcome this change as it took away barriers to customer service by having to abide by strictly defined rules on time limits, condition of packaging, etc. Despite this belief B&Q felt it right and proper to engage the very people that would be most affected by this change. The interviews looked to better understand how customers reacted to the current refund policy, how employees understood and implemented it and what effect the new policy would have on customers as well as themselves.

As it transpired, they were correct to take this approach as on gaining feedback from staff it became clear that taking away some clearly defined rules and replacing them with a fair and sensible statement made some feel uncomfortable. They actually felt more vulnerable without the detailed guidelines but also felt protective to their organisation and didn’t want the handful of abusive customers to be given the same treatment as the vast majority of ‘good’ customers. They also questioned how their KPI targets (specifically their cost of Refunds targets) could be negatively affected, an issue which had not been picked up originally.

Through understanding these, often complex, human issues the customer service policy was changed with targeted communications and the reward and recognition programme tailored to address concerns raised in the staff feedback. Greg Shenton, B&Q’s Customer Service Manager at the time summed it up nicely as:

“Without listening to our employees’ practical on the ground knowledge of customers, and the concerns that they had, we would not have achieved such an excellent implementation of the programme. Our employees are a vital component of us ensuring that we understand our customers, and can therefore build our business around their needs.”

QinetiQ, one of the world’s leading defence technology and security companies, have been increasingly focused on their existing and new customers since their privatisation in 2001. They underwent an extensive ‘health-check’ across employees to determine the level of customer-focus and to begin to identify and address obstacles, within the company and its culture, which could impact on that customer focus. Peter Hutton, Head of the QinetiQ insight Team at the time, had this to say about the process:

“We had seen results from both our customer satisfaction survey and our employee survey which demanded further investigation. We decided to start at the source and conduct interviews with employees from across the company. We discovered some key issues along with some tremendously useful detail which allowed us to act quickly in terms of the changes necessary to allow every employee to put their customer first.”

Fast and Cost Effective

Now, turning to issues of logistics, practicalities and budget: The staff feedback part of a project often has the quickest turn around. The setup time needed is short and the fieldwork much more controllable meaning an extensive study can be completed and reported in a few weeks and in some circumstances much faster than that.

But the real beauty is that the cost of getting at all this valuable information by tapping into employees’ knowledge of customers is nothing like as high as getting it from the customer’s mouth. There are no incentive or venue fees, fewer travel expenses and no recruitment fees.

Employee Interpretation

We have found, when conducting customer feedback sessions the results are best presented in a workshop forum. This allows these customer-facing professionals to listen to the feedback and help interpret it in the context of their own experience, with their own accounts. When this is done it greatly increases the probability that positive action will take place based upon this feedback, both at an overall corporate level, and if appropriate at an account or individual level.

Missing Jigsaw Piece

In conclusion, we believe companies haven’t switched on to the real benefits that can be gained from including employee input in their research programmes. We would like to see this piece of the jigsaw at least on the radar given the huge payback in terms of depth of knowledge within the business’s context, fast turnaround and cost-effectiveness.

Take the next step

To discuss how to make best use of employee insight, please get in touch.

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