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A good customer experience is critical for any company, no question about it. Whether it’s a product or service being sold, a company can’t survive without satisfied customers. Online customer communities have been shown to be highly effective tools to provide service, relationships and knowledge that crate brand loyalty -- and more profit -- through more engaged customers who will spend more over a longer period of time.

It’s time to take that same approach with the internal employee social network.

Employees are arguably a company’s greatest asset. Progressive businesses view them not only as workers who build products and services to earn a paycheck, but as highly important customers of the company. In this model, employees serve the company just as much as the company serves its employees. The relationship is bidirectional and mutually beneficial when done correctly. But here’s the challenge: companies aren’t necessarily treating their employee-customers as well as their external customers.

Companies spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on external communities for service, support and marketing purposes, but the same companies often won’t justify a digital community for its own smart, hard-working people. When companies see their employees as a valuable, carefully cultivated customer base, launching an enterprise social network as a way of supporting and engaging them becomes nothing short of an obvious choice:

  • External customers can access their community 24-7-365 to report product issues, share praise or troubleshoot problems with a group of thousands. Why not provide the same on-demand, anytime communication methods for employees?
  • Helpful, knowledgeable external customers inside external communities earn badges and rewards for their digital contributions to other buyers. Employees should have the opportunity to be rewarded for their willingness to help each other in an online space.
  • External customers can connect with key company figureheads and thought-leaders during product announcements, virtual Q&A sessions or earnings reports. Employees want and deserve the same kind of online access to leaders and information.

Social technology helps build relationships, loyalty, authenticity, trust, cooperation, friendship and other intangible but important feel-good value between an employee and his or her employer. But, in the words of Lavar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it. What follows are two unique concepts about treating your employees as customers in management practice, and how an enterprise social network can help build value in each case.

Enterprise Social Network as Customer Support

In a recent Forbes article by Karl Moore, Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies, one of the largest IT outsourcing firms in the world, shared his somewhat unique practice of prioritizing employees first and customers second. The rationale? To Nayar, the business of his company is to create shared value for its customers. Because it is a service-providing firm, that value is created during interactions between employees and customers. Therefore, he believes that management’s role is to help employees become enthused and empowered to create that customer value, and so management’s responsibility is to employee first and customer second.

This principle is embodied at HCL with a unique trouble ticketing system that, instead of tracking technical issues, tracks business and human problems as reported by employees. Management is accountable to respond to and resolve these issues in a defined time period, and only the employees can actually “close” a ticket.

In this case, HCL is creating a process for visible accountability around people challenges. The blending of human concerns and mechanical support processes is novel, and it may not work for all companies.

Most companies can create a similar sense of support and accountability by launching an enterprise social network. An ESN can be leveraged to proactively build relationships, solve problems and generate goodwill that reduce potential office flare-ups. At the same time, it can serve the same role as a “ticketing” system by allowing employees to share their ideas or concerns openly in a designated area. A leader or community manager can traffic the concern to the responsible party to gather feedback and help solve the issue. When a company prioritizes employee concerns, the ESN becomes a superhighway of problem-solving and authentic feedback.

Healthy Customers and Healthy Employees

If your company provides health and lifestyle-related products or services to your customers, it’s critical to do the same for your employees. Drugs, medical devices, fitness gadgets or baby-safe bath products are all designed to meet demanding customers’ needs for the best for their family. Health-related companies should strive to provide relevant services that meet the health needs of those who work day and night for them.

An ESN can help build this culture of care and concern, and academic research has shown that this can be a valuable corporate practice.

Employees typically expect to have a relationship with their company based on their tasks of designing products, managing finances or selling a certain number of units each year. However, employees also (and without realizing it) evaluate Perceived Organizational Support (POS), a general belief about how much their company values their contribution and well-being. These feelings and beliefs are important because they are associated with greater psychological well‐being, a more positive orientation toward the organization, and behavioral outcomes helpful to the organization.

Work evaluations tend to focus on productivity, efficiency and other measurements that rely on what the employee can provide to the company. But when we introduce the concept of POS and treating employees as customers, we view the employee-employer relationship from a completely different perspective. Employers will benefit the most by creating a supportive environment in which employees FEEL good. This requires evaluating the relationships between employees and with the company itself, which is a relatively novel idea.

Management theory has traditionally only identified managers and senior leadership as key builders of POS because they are seen as human embodiments of the company. More recent research suggests that employees also see other lower and mid-level employees as agents of the company. Large, high-quality employee networks and the willingness of others to help and share knowledge are associated with strong POS. There is new interest in employee “social embeddedness,” which is how networked they are and how supported they feel by both leaders and other employees. 

An enterprise social network is a physical way of helping employees develop these large human networks to share knowledge and find support. Social technology -- when implemented with employee networks in mind -- can help create perceived organizational support by connecting employees with leaders, with each other, and with information to get their jobs done. Enterprise social networks are frequently cited as resources that help employees get their work done faster, and a way to build the connections that make colleagues feel “real” across the globe.

Getting Beyond the Measurable

In the above scenarios, the concept of the employee-as-customer focuses on the employee’s feelings, perceptions and beliefs. This is problematic for many companies, because it’s impossible to put a dollar value on how emotions and beliefs affect the bottom line. Companies aren’t typically in the business of valuing sentiment, but rather building products and delivering service in a way that makes the business money.

But the research and anecdotes are clear: companies that treat their employees like customers can improve the metrics that shareholders do care about, and an enterprise social network can facilitate these intangible, but ever so important experiences.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  lydia_shiningbrightly