Good (and bad) vibrations

When a disgruntled member of staff interacts with customers, the result in Little Britain terms can be ‘computer says no’ – which makes encouraging positive attitudes that much more important.

Carphone Warehouse chief executive Charles Dunstone says the recent launch of his brand’s broadband service has been a "painful" experience (MW last week). And it seems potential customers have had a rough time of it lately at Carphone Warehouse too: it was reported that staff had told a customer over 70 that they were not eligible to sign up for the broadband package. The company denies this, saying that it advises staff to "use their discretion".

Still, we have all encountered that infuriating reaction that is succinctly conveyed by David Walliams as "computer says no" and the incident above underlines the fact that customer experience, whether positive or negative, has a major bearing on brand perception and value, and that interaction between staff and customers is vital to the success of every brand. Understanding how and why employees engage at work is therefore vital for marketers.

The huge sums spent on service standards, staff training and brand guidelines suggest the principle is already well established. But it counts for nothing if an individual employee is simply not inclined to interact with customers in the right way.

Ibis Communication, an employee engagement specialist, aims to define and measure employee engagement. According to Ibis, engagement has two fundamental dimensions: clarity, which focuses on what the individual knows about the company and his or her role within it, and connection, which looks at how he or she reacts to this role and the company they work for.

To find out how "engaged" UK staff really are, Ibis commissioned Ciao to conduct a survey of more than 1,400 UK staff across all industry sectors, functions and job roles. The survey determines levels of clarity and connection and draws some fundamental conclusions about employee engagement in the UK.

First, brand or company "champions" (staff who are very satisfied) make up just 13% of the total, meaning 87% are in some way dissatisfied with the relationship with their employer. The results suggest 19% of people in companies employing fewer than 500 people are champions compared with 12% in organisations employing more than 500.

Nearly a quarter of respondents say they are significantly disengaged and likely to undermine brand perception. Of these, 16% are what Ibis call "objectors" and are likely to vocalise their dissatisfaction. The research suggests that nearly one in four public sector employees is an objector. Among private sector employees, staff working in professional services are the most engaged, where 27% are champions and 14% objectors.

Elsewhere, telecoms has 10% champions and 19% objectors, while financial services has 11% of each. Engagement is weakest amongst public sector employees where just 8% are champions and 24% are objectors. Organisations with fewer than 500 employees have an average of 12% objectors. In larger ones, the figure is 16%.

Nearly half of all employees occupy the middle ground and make up the silent majority in many companies. This group does not influence the company either positively or negatively, but the research suggests an active attitude towards to employee engagement can increase the number of champions quite quickly.

The research also shows that just 16% of respondents have a strong connection with their employer, exactly half the number with strong "clarity". This means that while understanding of a company’s products or services may be good, belief in them or doubts about the company’s ability to deliver them effectively will undermine an individual’s ability to engage and be strong product advocates.

Most people will accept that having a good proportion of champions is healthy for any organisation. But are champions really more likely to "go the extra mile", commit themselves to the company and be good advocates for it? The Ibis research suggests that they are.

All respondents were asked to rate the likelihood of their doing each of these things on a scale of one to seven. On average, champions gave a score of 6.4 out of seven when asked about their willingness to go the extra mile, with observers (the middle ground) scoring 5.2 and malcontents, the least engaged group, just 3.9. The research suggests a very similar pattern to questions about future commitment and advocacy.

Understanding levels of employee engagement can help marketers improve the customer experience and shape brand strategy. Brand value is driven by customer loyalty which is in turn determined by the interaction between staff and customer. Only by understanding what sits behind this interaction can marketers really hope to influence and improve relationships with customers and create more of that highly prized brand buzz.

• Paul Roberts, director of Ibis Communication, contributed to this week’s Trends Insight

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