Internal communicators need to tell the customer’s story

Posted on September 1, 2016 3:01 pm by | Internal

Internal communicators need to tell the customer story

In 1991, while I was leading the communications team at a Southern California-based pharma, I introduced a new feature to the Currents section of the monthly employee magazine. Customer was a brief interview with a customer. In each interview, we asked what the customer liked about doing business with the company, what they liked about working with our competitors, and what we could do better.

Customer ColumnsThe column was part of a larger company-wide customer-focused initiative. This was long before anybody considered the notion of “customer experience.” The initiative’s mantra was, “If you don’t work directly with the customer, help somebody who does.” It sounds nice, but it’s off-base. At some level, every employee touches the customer.

Employee communication departments—some, anyway—recognize that communication means more than the one-way, top-down distribution of content. And, given that employees today have access to multiple sources of information about the company, they understand that communication cannot focus on keeping employees informed. Through Glassdoor, Google Alerts, links shared by colleagues in newsfeeds, and myriad other channels, employees have no problem keeping up with company news. That’s dramatically different than it was in 1991, when the sources available to employees consisted of print media subscriptions and television and radio news broadcasts. Period.

The transformation of internal comms departments is evident in the titles of their leaders. No longer are the most forward-looking departments guided by VPs or Directors of Employee or Internal Communication. Now it’s Internal Communication and Culture, or Employee Communication and Experience. Communicators on these teams are keenly aware of the impact the employee experience and organizational culture have on engagement.

They also assume their efforts will be felt by the customer. I hear over and over again (and have said it myself) that you can’t expect employees to deliver the customer experience if they don’t have a great experience themselves. Like the “help somebody who does” mantra, it sounds good. It is not, however, consistent with the evidence. In fact, little in the engagement literature mentions customers at all. According to Michael Lowenstein, writing in CusomterThink post...

Typically, there is little or no mention/inclusion of ‘customer’ or ‘customer focus’ elements either in measurement or analysis of employee engagement. Though there is proof that customer experience, and resultant behavior, is impacted by engagement, it is more tangential and inferential than purposeful in nature.

(Lowenstein is a Thought Leadership principal with Beyond Philosophy, a customer experience consultancy.)

A lot of internal comms departments are assuming responsibility for their employee ambassador programs, which are designed to enhance the company’s reputation in employees’ online and real-world communities. I have yet to hear about an internal comms department leading the charge for customer ambassador programs or the melding of customer ambassadorship into their employee advocacy programs. Lowenstein argues that “Ambassadorship should be an enterprise-wide mantra for every organization.” He cites a 2015 Advertising Age post:

All employees need to embody the intended customer experience. A narrative must be cascaded down to every single individual in the organization. Your employees must clearly understand their role in delivering the promise the narrative makes to the end customer. This requires multiple conversations and socialization across all business divisions and at every level, not just for customer support roles.

If something about that sentiment sounds familiar, it should. One of the enablers of employee engagement is a strategic narrative. That narrative has several components, including…

  • Where did we come from?
  • Where are we now?
  • Where are we going?
  • Why do we exist?
  • Why would customers want to do business with us? (That is, what is our value proposition?)
  • How do we want to be perceived by customers and other stakeholders?
  • What is our place in the world?

The narrative is the responsibility of the company’s leaders; it must emanate from the top. But it is the employee communications department that has the skills and tools to drive it down through the organization and make it live and breathe. To be complete, the narrative cannot be a simple continuum (where we came from to where we are to where we’re going). It’s equally important for every employee (across all business divisions and at every level) to know who the customer is, what they want, how they view the company and the marketplace…in other words, what we were trying to do with our humble column back in 1991 without realizing that we were contributing to a strategic narrative.

We need to drive this narrative through all channels, not just the top-down media we distribute. We need to facilitate employee-to-employee conversations and surface insights from those conversations that deserve to be spread. We need insights from the bottom to flow back up to the top. (While working at the pharma, I spent one day each quarter with a sales rep meeting with doctors. It’s amazing how much sales reps know and how little anybody higher up wants to hear from them. Greasing the wheels of that communication channel is unmined gold for internal communicators.)

All communication efforts need to be grounded in at least four core concepts, which I have tried to express in this Venn diagram:

Internal Comms Venn Diagram

At the center is communication of any and all kinds. You should know when you communicate whether and how it supports culture, engagement, employee experience and/or customer experience. You should set objectives to ensure you address each concept adequately. Your measurement efforts should assess how well those concepts are getting baked into the organization.

As you plan your communication, consider the overlaps of these concepts. The strategic narrative, as we saw, is key to both employee engagement and the customer experience. A terrible employee experience isn’t likely to result in a fantastic customer experience. The company culture will improve if the employee experience is a positive one.

To these concepts, we need to bring all our skills to make the content relevant, entertaining, shareable, and engaging. Consider it a prescription for ensuring internal comms is indispensable.

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