Study: CSR Encourages Better Customer Service
Experts say an organization's corporate social responsibility program is just one of many factors that can influence how an employee performs on the job, but it can be an invaluable one.
By Carol Patton
Fascinating research. Great job. An important truth.
That's how some industry experts describe the results of a study published in the May issue of Journal of Marketing and led by Daniel Korschun, an assistant professor of marketing at the LeBow College of Business at Drexel University in Philadelphia. The study examined how 221 frontline employees at a major financial services company responded to corporate social responsibility activities -- such as charitable giving or environmental programs -- and CSR's impact on their job performance.
That study revealed two key findings: that CSR programs help bridge gaps for employees seeking commonalities with their boss or senior management and customers, and then changes the dynamic of those relationships, often boosting employee engagement and customer-service levels.
"[Frontline employees] are charged with acting as a conduit between the company and customers," says Korschun. "They have this twin alliance they have to reconcile in their jobs -- the company on one side, customers on the other side. Their work lives really revolve around how to deal with this tension."
He says that frontline employees can develop strong bonds with company leaders if they believe those leaders fully support CSR programs as they do. The same holds true with customers. When CSR becomes the topic of conversation, he says, employees typically discover that customers share their values and attitudes. In such scenarios, he says, employees will "move mountains" for customers.
Another benefit is that CSR programs are great icebreakers. Addressing a company's CSR activities makes it easier for sales people and others to engage customers in informal conversations, he adds.
While these results were somewhat anticipated, Korschun says the survey's main surprise was that employees who connect with their employer don't necessarily bond with customers. In fact, they could be at odds with each other.
"When someone feels close to the company, it could potentially even move them away from customers if they don't maintain that bridge with customers themselves," he says. "It's really looking for commonalities between employees and customers that can make [CSR] a powerful tool."
Adam Zuckerman says these results reflect his own professional experiences and offer an unique, behind-the-scenes explanation regarding CSR's impact. But make no mistake: He believes CSR is simply one piece of a bigger puzzle.
As the lead for Towers Watson's global employee survey practice, Zuckerman says CSR is just one of many factors that influence how an employee performs. For example, as employees learn about their organization's CSR programs, their perceptions of leadership may be positively enhanced and drive performance. Likewise, employees may also develop a sense of pride in their company because of such programs, become more engaged, and deliver better customer service.
While pride and company image rank among the key drivers of engagement, he says the No. 1 driver worldwide is leadership or employee perceptions of senior leaders.
Many of his clients want to help employees better connect with leaders and take greater pride in their company. There's just one problem -- they don't know how.
Zuckerman believes the survey answers that question and presents a realistic solution. By offering CSR activities, he says, HR can raise the profile of the organization, elevate pride among its workforce regarding the company and its leaders, and drive employee performance, which includes delivering better customer service.
"This is a great study and a great finding," Zuckerman says, explaining that the study provides evidence of how important it is for HR to consider factors beyond an employee's immediate job. "What the company is doing more broadly, what leaders are doing . . . you may think their (actions) are a million miles away from an employee's performance (but) are actually highly related to it."
Despite the local impact of CSR activities, employees often lack a clear understanding about them. Korschun at Drexel says that employee awareness of CSR programs can range between 20 percent and 70 percent. But even at the higher end, employee knowledge is fairly vague, he says.
HR can serve a very essential function by communicating CSR activities with existing and future employees, says Katy Moore, director of corporate strategy at the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, which partners with Johns Hopkins University to support the Institute for Corporate Social Responsibility.
She says HR can post different types of messaging about CSR programs on the company's website, in employee newsletters, and especially on recruitment web pages. Consider featuring stories about CSR activities that employees engage in or outlining CSR opportunities for new hires so potential job candidates recognize the importance of CSR in your company.
"You can tell your CSR story in a compelling way, encourage people to get involved and champion folks who are involved by highlighting their efforts," says Moore.
Some companies also incorporate CSR into new employee orientations and partially base annual employee reviews or even executive bonuses on CSR involvement, she says. Once new hires are onboarded, she suggests soliciting their feedback about what charities or programs they want to be involved with, and then offer real volunteer leadership opportunities.
Just be consistent with your policies and constantly showcase your programs, opportunities and employee participation, says Moore. Above all, she says, how CSR programs are managed -- and the need for leadership to genuinely support and participate in CSR -- are critical. If managed top down, where senior execs select CSR programs versus soliciting staff input, frontline employees will feel like volunteering is mandated. Likewise, if senior execs aren't authentic about CSR, no one else will be either.
For years, Moore says, companies have believed that CSR offers multiple benefits to help companies attract, motivate and retain not only employees, but customers as well. She points to a recent Nielsen study that revealed 50 percent of more than 29,000 global consumers surveyed between the ages of 40 to 44 were willing to pay more for products and services from companies that implemented CSR programs.
She says the Drexel study legitimizes these long-held beliefs and tackles one of the biggest challenges in the field: measuring CSR efforts.
"This is really important research in proving that CSR efforts really do make a difference . . . ," Moore says.