In this blog I explore key ideas for maintaining customer loyalty and protecting your brand in tough economic times, from an employee engagement and trust perspective.
Tough times call for tough measures. In a recession or economic downturn government and businesses are continually looking for ways to strengthen customer confidence. While ever customers are confident that there is light at the end of the tunnel, or merely have confidence in government and business that they can get through the tough times, there is an economy with a pulse. It may be faint, but there is a pulse.
Typical business measures implemented to bolster customer confidence revolve around cost and waste minimisation. Stripping away the fat that was put on during the good years is a common and smart first step. Most measures that are implemented are geared around cost, for example, streamlining, or optimizing process and laying off employees.
What is often forgotten is that customer confidence is not only the result of cost management. Customer confidence is also the result of what they observe and how they “feel” when they interact with your business. This means that despite the circumstances, employee engagement and confidence needs to be at an all time high. This is because your employees have the power to exponentially increase the effectiveness, and perception, of cost management strategies by the way they engage with the customer and talk to their friends and families about the business.
Employees are smart. They know when things are going well and when things are not so good. So when an organisation is having to make tough, cost related decisions, but keeping this information to the senior inner circle of managers, it's also a given that the employee group by this time suspects something is wrong. But they don't know what; and at the same time no one is telling them anything. So what's the natural thing to do? Speculate. Pretty soon gossip and rumour overcome facts and employee confidence in management and the company starts to diminish. This is a major problem for a three reasons.
Firstly, one of the major contributors to employee engagement is having an enjoyable and stimulating place to work. When paranoia sets in, this negatively impacts on this factor.
Secondly, most businesses today talk about integrity and open communication as being integral to their business. It says so on the policies that sit on the foyer walls and hallways of your offices. When the facts, as much as they can be shared without compromising core organizational strategy, are not communicated in a timely manner the perception is that the workforce is not trusted to be adult enough to deal with the real situation. The result is that employees experience varying degrees of condescension and cynicism instead of integrity and communication.
Thirdly, all the cost cutting and cost optimization measures in the world don't mean anything if you don't have customers being confident in your brand. In tough times repeat business is often the injection that keeps the business pulse ticking along given that customers loyalty can take a hit due to their own need to cut costs and shop around as well. In times of recession loyalty can often be a victim, not that it needs to be. Customer confidence is inspired equally by a good product and human contact; the behaviours that the customer facing employees provide. Simply put; if employees are disenchanted experience tells us that service levels will take a hit.
So how do you avoid this situation that so many companies experience? Companies that weather economic storms are those brave enough to combine trust and communication with their cost management strategies. There will be information that is too sensitive to share, so what is communicated at each level of the business may vary slightly. Going on the front foot and communicating the real situation to all employees from the outset can minimise paranoia and avoid going down the path of employee disenchantment.
There is no doubt that some employees will be upset or angry at the news. You will also have pockets of paranoia and cynicism. However this is outweighed by the fact that the organisation trusted their people enough to be open and honest. The benefits of communicating the 'what's', 'why's' and 'how's' of a situation can have some important benefits, in particular, brand protection, employee and customer confidence.
Brand protection comes about when your remaining employees, and the ones that are made redundant, continue to talk highly of the company. They can do this because they understand 'why' the company took its course action. They may not like it, but they understand. This is even more important within organisations that are laying off staff even though they are still very profitable. This is probably one of the single most misunderstood issues that companies fail to explain.
Communication breeds confidence. When employees know what is happening to their business, and why, they feel involved. They offer ideas as to how things can be done better because they know management will listen. Additionally, when those remaining have to do more with less they know why. It doesn't make the job easier, but it helps provide a healthier mindset with which to do the job. Interestingly, it also helps the employees, especially those dealing with customers, have empathy with what their customers may be going through which is a vital strength during any economic period.
When the brand is being protected, and employees are confident in what is happening and why, it is easier to inspire customer confidence - naturally. It doesn't remove the fact that it is a difficult period, however it can ease the way somewhat for all involved.
For some organisations implementing these ideas are 'tough measures' in and of themselves because it's not something that comes naturally. However of all the 'tough measures' being implemented it's one of the easiest and most effective and can only have positive outcomes in both the short and long terms. In short...your cost optimisation strategy needs to be equally matched by a strong, and genuine, communication strategy.