If companies put employees first, as they claim they do, why are 71% of American workers are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” in their work (per this Gallup poll)? If 71% of your external customers didn’t engage with your brand, would it be acceptable? Treating employees like customers is simply good business and has been directly responsible for success of “strong culture” companies like Zappos and Southwest Airlines. Southwest CEO Kelleher once said, “When you treat [employees] right, then they will treat your outside customers right. That has been a powerful competitive weapon for us.”

Ask Employees What the Problems Are

For internal and external customers alike, a stellar customer experience comes from the ability to understand and anticipate problems, providing solutions to proactively solve them. As a first order of business, you should ask your internal customers what ails them, and really listen. More than likely, your employees have trouble with the following:

Too Much Work, Too Few Resources

It’s not a surprise that most people feel more than a little overwhelmed these days. As the economy contracted, companies contracted their workforces. “Doing more with less” is the mantra of the current workplace. Add to that the dizzying pace of innovation and economic instability -- no wonder that stress levels are extremely high. To help employees grapple with their workloads, allow them to flexibly connect with the resources they need to get their jobs done.

Outdated Communication Stifles

The industrial age complex has left us with a dizzying number of silos, and we’ve been flowing information inside these silos, with technology reinforcing them. Silos are a terribly inefficient way to exchange information, given how of quickly business is moving. To serve external customers, systems need to deliver critical and relevant business information to individuals, but not so much data to render the data streams useless. This brings me to my next point…

Too Much Data

Most of us are dealing with data deluge, and our attention spans are shrinking to accommodate. The social web has democratized access to and publishing of information, evolving the definition of a leader to information curator vs. disseminator. Organizations need to help employees turn data into information enabling “knowledge flows” vs. protecting “knowledge stocks”, in the words of John Hagel.

Dreadful User Experience

Enterprise systems can be frightful to use, and the very simple explanation is that they weren’t designed with the user in mind. A symptom of the cog-in-a-machine industrial age metaphor, business systems placed the user into the role of the operator of the machine, not the person around whom the experience is centered. But times have changed, and we expect more – the empowered customer has become the empowered employee. The proliferation of social tools in our personal lives has left us expecting more from our work apps: mobility, flexibility, pleasurable design, ease of use and seamless working with other apps.

Lack of Clarity

Let’s switch gears and talk about the softer side of customer experience. If culture is an accelerant of business, purpose and clarity are the foundation of culture. But are we all on the same page? Did you know that in most organizations with a mission statement, less than half of employees can recall the mission statement if asked? How do we expect employees to embody it, if they don’t know what it is? I attended Daniel Pink’s visionary keynote at Ultimate Connections Conference the other day and he stressed the importance of purpose as a motivator (salary will only get you so far). Help your employees answer “why?” for everything that they do, and clarify their stake in the future of the company.

Inferiority Complex

Transparency brought on by the social web is an amazing force; yet it can be destructive by spotlighting what’s right, as well as what’s wrong. If your customers’ experience is inferior to that provided by your competitors, expect mobility. Because empowered employees’ networks are highly portable and dependency on company resources is weakened, the empowered employee is more likely to jump ship to companies that provide the right customer experience.

Tips to Design the Internal Customer Experience

Internal customers are key stakeholders, not just passive consumers. Here are some things to think through as you design the internal customer experience ready for the 21st century:

Don’t Fight the Social Revolution

To this day, many companies respond by locking down access to social networks. But is that really a sustainable and reasonable model? The genie is out of the bottle, and even though social tools will change, we have changed ourselves in the process. Wouldn’t you want to help people channel their energy to solve problems you are working on vs. zapping their energy and pissing them off in the process?

Focus on Trust

To truly engage your employees in the long term, you have to capture imagination, develop passions and nurture implicit trust. When you hire with rigor and refuse to negotiate on fit, you help your employees trust each other. Trust powers deep collaboration, deep, tacit knowledge and helps to solve complex problems together.

Create Spaces for Passion & Creativity to Explode

In the words of John Hagel, a passionate person tends to seek out new challenges and new people to help solve those challenges.You need to help enable the creation of spaces where your employees can band together based on common passions, and driven by a strong and explicit vision, solve difficult problems in compressed timelines. The companies that succeed in the next decade will be the ones that understand how to harness passion.

Give People Autonomy and Provide Feedback

Daniel Pink stipulates that the key ingredients to employee motivation are: autonomy, mastery and purpose. You simply have to trust people enough to give them the tools they need, and let them simply do their job. When people have control of where, how and with whom they work, they will be infinitely more effective and engaged. “We hire good people, good people do good things; to help them do good things, get out of the way,” says Pink. Because people want to get better at what they do, they appreciate immediate, frequent and internal feedback, which occurs in open, collaborative spaces and can come from anywhere in the organization.

If You Build It, They Won’t Come. And If They Do Come, They Won’t Stay.

We need to evolve from requiring compliance to voluntary adoption in our business systems. Employees still have to get their jobs done, and if company-issued systems hinder instead of enable, it’s easy enough for employees to create their own or adopt existing tools. Want to lock the computers down? Good luck; employees bring their own devices to work.

Listen to your employees, and they’ll tell you what they value and show you how they want to work. Involve them in your vision, focus on culture and give them tools that are mobile, accessible, flexible, and that support natural human behavior.

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in reading: