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Empowering Employees

Giving workers the power to make decisions and take action can help increase employee engagement and customer satisfaction while strengthening the employer brand.

Sunday, October 2, 2011
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Most of us have been there. We call into a customer-service center with a problem only to be routed from operator to operator, our blood boiling hotter by the minute.

Does the person on the line really have any power to help me?

Can he really fix my cable TV or take charges off of my utility bill?

Do I need to ask for his supervisor to actually get something done?

At Nicor National, an affiliate of Nicor Gas in Naperville, Ill., that provides warranty solutions, HVAC services and energy-management plans, customers probably never wonder those things. Operators there have the power to issue credits on their own, says Barbara Porter, the company's vice president of business development and customer service.

 No checking with a supervisor. No transferring the call to the billing department. Just a quick, easy resolution.

"They're professionals and we trust them to make the right decisions," says Porter.

Before the program was implemented in 2009, Nicor's 200 customer-service operators had to put callers on hold to get a supervisor's permission before they could issue credits. Or worse, they'd be forced to say something along the lines of, "This problem needs to be forwarded to a specialist who will get back to you."

Hanging up before there's a resolution? That's a sure-fire way to make customers go from being angry to enraged.

"Our employees wanted to feel helpful . ... Now, we're able to empathize with the customer and use our softer customer-service skills to give the reps the ability to resolve issues," says Porter.

Operators are trained to ask questions that help them get to the root of the problem and are advised to give credits as they see fit, not to exceed two month's worth of a customer's bill. Granted, the operators can't give every customer a reward, but the company has not found evidence of abuse or overuse, says Porter.

In many businesses, managers make the decisions and line employees follow them and execute, but experts say a growing number of companies are offering more independence and autonomy to their workforces.

Empowerment comes in many forms: allowing call-center operators to award credits; asking team members to evaluate job candidates; encouraging coffee-shop workers to give freebies to regular customers. The list goes on.

Taking this approach, experts say, can drive up employee engagement and customer satisfaction while strengthening the employer brand. There's a caveat, though: With more companies now looking at empowerment as a management tool, they say, regulations need to be put in place to ensure such approaches, policies and programs don't backfire.

Modern Management

Most companies are managing as if the United States is in the throes of the industrial revolution, not the information age, with managers watching an employee's every move in an effort to squeeze the most productivity out of him or her, says Tamara Erickson, a speaker, author and workforce expert.

But times have changed.

"The work we do requires us to think, make decisions, use our good judgment and make choices . ... That's the nature of [employment today]," says Erickson. "Companies recognize that, so they're definitely looking for ways to help employees do that more effectively."

That can result in happier workers because, in many cases, they consider independence to be more valuable than even salary, she says. In other words, meaning and autonomy is the new money.

Dave Ulrich, professor of business at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, says empowering employees can also lead to an engaged, motivated workforce. Companies, he says, are moving away from "traditional command-and-control" management styles and into "coach-and-collaborate" schemes that harbor empowerment.

"Leaders will learn from employees things they did not know, and increased employee productivity will have a positive impact on investors," says Ulrich.

He suggests, however, that companies ensure four things are in place before giving employees more autonomy in decision-making: employee competence, access to information, authority by supervisors to think for themselves and incentives for doing a good job. HR can help by designing practices that sustain those initiatives, such as rewarding leaders who empower employees and training and incentivizing managers to empower.

Employees with more power, he says, tend to give discretionary effort -- the all-important piece of engagement.

Ulrich cautions companies against empowering employees who might not be ready for it, though. Perhaps they're being expected to make decisions that are too high-level or they can't handle the pressure of such a demand.

"The most common mistake is to assume that empowerment is only about granting employees authority to make decisions," he says. "If employees do not have the competence to make right decisions or the information on which to make decisions, they're likely to make bad decisions."

Erickson suggests that, during the hiring process, managers be honest about what will be expected of the employee if he or she comes aboard.

"Let the employee make the decision of whether or not that working style and working culture is one that's going to be attractive to them," she says.

There are plenty of companies that empower employees. Denihan Hospitality Group, a New York-based luxury-hotel chain, puts hiring decisions into the hands of its workforce. Room attendants interview and hire room attendants. Front-desk managers hire front-desk managers. Not only does the process take the hiring burden off a corporate staff -- including HR -- that has been thinned by recessionary downsizing, it also increases employee engagement, and makes more employees responsible for talent, according to various news stories.

At Whole Foods, empowerment is paramount as well. When people are hired at the popular grocery-store chain based in Austin, Texas, they immediately start an orientation period of 30 to 90 days. After that period, fellow team members vote on whether the employee should be hired permanently.

London-based fast-food restaurant Pret a Manger also uses empowerment to engage employees and strengthen its brand. Employees there are encouraged to give free coffee or treats to regular customers and a panel of team members decides whether to keep a new hire after a six-hour training day, according to a story in the New York Times.

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Isle of Capri Casinos, a chain of 15 casinos operating in six states and based in Creve Coeur, Mo., implemented a program called I Care I Can at a few of its properties. The program allows some of the company's lowest-level workers to give customers something for free if they encounter a problem. If a customer's room isn't quite clean and ready when they arrive to check in, a front-desk operator can offer them a free buffet dinner while they wait.

Such an action can immediately turn a customer's frustration into enjoyment.

Julia Carcamo, vice president of brand marketing at Isle of Capri Casinos, realizes many managers would shy away from giving all employees the ability to offer comps. (It does sound expensive, right?) But she believes trusting employees to make good with customers directly is good business.

"If you look at it as, 'How many frowns can I turn into smiles?' -- to be very simplistic about it -- you'll find that the return on that investment is very good," says Carcamo.

Powering the Brand

Companies catching onto the wisdom of empowering workers seem to recognize that workers can either make or break a company's brand, says Bruce Bolger, managing director of the Enterprise Engagement Alliance, a Washington-based group of companies focused on fostering engagement.

"It's the way customers engage with the human beings of a company that drives loyalty," says Bolger. "The impact of a person that I'm dealing with at a hotel is actually more important to me than the flashy ad I might not even look at on television."

When employees are viewed as the brand itself, it's important that they have the power to help customers or change situations quickly. Empowered employees equals good customer service. Good customer services is a form of good marketing.

"Companies are realizing that, at the moment you have an unhappy customer, that's an opportunity to turn that around," says Bolger.

And by using customer-relationship-management software, companies can track the financial link between engaged customers and engaged employees, he says. Often, a customer's experience dealing with workers at a company is the top reason why someone either likes or dislikes the business.

"Ten years ago, they couldn't track that," says Bolger.

But it all starts at the top. It's important that a company gets buy-in from the top levels of the organization when trying to offer more autonomy to employees.

"It has to be part of the culture. If it isn't, it will backfire because the employees will be confused," says Bolger. "They won't really be sure how much power they have. They'll figure, 'I'll get yelled at if I do this.' "

Not only do companies need to train employees about the best ways to use their new-found power, but they also need to show them that it's really OK to use it.

"It can't be a short-term quick fix," he says.

It's all a bit new because branding isn't part of traditional HR schooling.

"HR people traditionally do not think of themselves as marketers," he says, "but if a company is going to institute a strategy where its employees are their brand, you need to have an HR team that gets it."

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