Tag Archives: employee engagement

It’s not about the money.

Remember the movie, Jerry McGuire, and the classic line, “Show me the money?”  That may have been a big motivator for Cuba Gooding’s character, but like I’ve said before in this column, financial incentives are not the main motivators when it comes to employee engagement.  If you doubt that premise, check out a presentation made at this year’s renowned TED Conference by Dan Pink – a leading expert in the science of human motivation.  It’s 18 minutes long, and it’s worth every second.

Using research and humor, Pink makes a compelling case for the premise that financial incentives usually produce the opposite result you’d expect on engagement and performance.  He starts with research dating back 60 years from an experiment created by Karl Duncker called “the candle problem.”  Basically, people are challenged with figuring out how to attach a candle to the wall in way that would prevent wax from dripping on the table.  Duncker found that most people struggled due to what he called functional fixedness – a “mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem.”  For example, if you need a paperweight, but you only have a hammer, you’ll have a hard time seeing it as a tool to hold down paper.  Most people eventually figure it out, but it takes them a while to get it.

People aren’t always striving for the “prize.”
Years later, another researcher, Sam Gluxberg, decided to see how a monetary incentive would affect people’s performance on the candle problem.  He told one group if they were among the fastest 25%, they would get $5.00.  If they were the fastest in the entire group, they would receive $20.00.  So naturally the people offered the incentives completed it faster, right?  Wrong!  In fact, they took an average of 3 1/2 minutes LONGER than those who were simply asked to perform the task as fast as possible, explaining simply that their results would be compared with the test standard.

As Pink points out, though, what these studies prove and what organizations do in response to that information are two different things.  After decades of evidence from scientific studies like these, guess what?  The main technique that’s used to boost performance today is still the usual array of bonuses and other financial incentives.

If money isn’t the answer, what is?
Pink says that intrinsic motivation will outstrip extrinsic motivation every time when it comes to boosting employee engagement.  And the three main intrinsic motivators he’s identified are:

  • Autonomy – people want to have some sense of independence and control over their work
  • Mastery – they are motivated by opportunities to improve and excel
  • Purpose – they are driven by what matters to them deeply and personally

Still don’t believe it?  Check out Pink’s video – and then try your own experiment.  Be prepared, though.  You may have to change the way you think – or keep believing that extrinsic motivators are the keys to engagement, and hoping you’ll get lucky enough to beat the odds.

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Trust me on this.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that one of the surest ways to raise suspicion about someone’s motives is for the person to say, “Trust me on this?”  That’s certainly true when it comes to employees and customers.

In the workplace, few challenges have obsessed and perplexed the business world more than the issue of employee trust.  The reason is obvious.  With it, virtually any obstacle can be overcome in an organization.  Without it, every day is filled with uncertainty and anxiety, no matter what else the organization does right.

In the marketplace, few things are treasured more passionately than loyal customers – those people who come back time and again, and even refer new customers to enjoy the same experience.

When you get them both right, it’s business paradise.  The crucial thing to understand is that the two go hand-in-hand.  Without employee trust, customer trust suffers, as well.

Management Credibility Factors
One reason organizations fail to foster a culture of trust is because they focus mainly on interpersonal factors.  They’re important, to be sure, and here are key behaviors that managers have to exhibit to gain employee trust:

  • Caring – Genuine concern about employee wellbeing is where it has to start.
  • Honesty and Openness – Dance around the truth or hide important information, and people tune out and turn away.
  • Responsiveness – Listening and taking action on what you hear tells people you’re sincere.
  • Competence – If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s hard to win a following.
  • Reliability – Can people count on you to do what you say
  • Apology – If you can admit mistakes and apologize sincerely, trust goes way up.

In a recent article I wrote for Communication World called “Cracking the Culture Code,” the communication VPs for Southwest Airlines and Enterprise Rent-A-Car talk about how their companies observe those behaviors in their extraordinarily successful cultures.

People-First Systems
But…that’s only half of the equation.  You also have to design the systems, policies, and processes in a way that tells employees unequivocally that they are trusted.  We call those People-First Systems, and they fall into five main categories:

  • Measurement
  • Rewards and recognition
  • Communication
  • Learning and development
  • Continuous improvement

Of course, many organizations have some type of mechanism in place for all of those areas.  But do they really demonstrate to employees that they are trusted?  Do they truly reinforce the oft-heard mantra that people are our most important asset?  Fact is, systems in most organizations are designed to protect against the miniscule number of irresponsible people, and those constraints wind up stifling the vast majority of employees you can count on like clockwork.

Bottom line, you can’t have performance excellence without sincere trust and belief in people.  If you have doubts about the merits of that philosophy, consider the wisdom of renowned statesman, Henry Stimson, who said, “The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.”

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Closing the distance.

My friend and colleague, Richard Barrett, wrote a book several years ago called “Liberating the Corporate Soul.”  It’s exceptional on many levels, as I wrote in a review that is posted on Amazon.com.  One remarkable quality about Richard’s book is how it is both wonderfully inspiring and technically rigorous.  Marcello Palazzi, Co-Founder and Chair of the Progessio Foundation said that “Liberating the Corporate Soul achieves the impossible: it integrates the intangibles of ethics, vision, and consciousness into a tangible measurement system.”

 Much of Richard’s work is rooted in his experiences from when he worked at the World Bank.  During his years there, he developed a strong conviction that the institution needed to focus more of its attention on the issue of human rights in its monetary policies and decision-making.  Since he was a mid-level manager with limited influence, he decided that he would need to take a less conventional approach if he wanted to reach the ears – and hearts – of senior management.

Building Leverage Over Lunch

He began his quest by inviting a handful of friends to join him for a “brown bag lunch” to discuss the role of the World Bank in addressing human rights issues.  At the end of their lunch, the group agreed that they would meet again – and invite others who might share a similar interest.  They continued this “pyramid” approach of attracting like-minded colleagues until after a year the group had grown to more than a hundred people.  Eventually, it attracted the attention of senior management – some of whom also began attending the luncheons.  Not long after that, human rights found its way onto the bank’s agenda of top priorities.

That experience led Richard to do more work in the areas of values and human development in the workplace.  He eventually left the World Bank to pursue a career in consulting that led to the publication of “Liberating the Corporate Soul.”  I’ve often cited a quote from his book that has significant implications for professional communicators, as well as HR and organizational development people. . .

“Nearly all the tension and all the fear in the world originates

from the sense of separation we have from one another.”

 For me, that quote speaks volumes about what it takes to achieve a level of trust that sparks meaningful employee engagement – that gut level drive for people to willingly, even eagerly, go the extra mile for the mutual benefit of the employee and the company alike.  For professionals in the “people business,” that phrase can serve as a touchstone and a mission for their work – to close the distance that separates people from one another in the workplace.

 Over the years, I’ve collected and created a number of quotes that I’ve found thought-provoking or inspirational about employee engagement and communication – including Richard’s.  I’ve compiled some of them into a 4-minute “moviette.”  You can see it by clicking on the title I’ve given it as a tribute to Richard and his work – “Closing the Distance.”   So find yourself a bag of popcorn…sit back…and enjoy.

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They’re not your people.

Have you ever heard a manager ask, “How can I motivate my people?”  It’s a familiar lament, and the sentiment behind it is easy to understand.  After all, managers need to get the work done, and if “their people” aren’t motivated to do it, managers are up a creek – right?  Maybe so, but the answer to the question is not the answer to the problem.  In fact, the question reveals a basic misunderstanding of human nature in the workplace – on at least three levels.

People Have Brainpower – Use It
First, what managers typically mean when they ask that question is, “How can I get the people who work for me to do what I want them to do in the way I want them to do it?” One reason that kind of mentality can backfire is because it conveys the impression that managers have all the answers, and the job of employees is to do what they’re told. If there’s one clear lesson that came out of the quality movement, it’s that every body in the workplace also comes equipped with a brain. Any organization that fails to take full advantage of everyone’s heads and hearts as well as their hands is diminishing the potential of its employees to help the organization excel.

People Motivate From Within – Build on It
Second, people cannot be motivated.  That’s becausemotivation is intrinsic. You can give employees extrinsic incentives, but if those incentives don’t resonate with what people are already motivated by, they will have little effect.  That’s why managers have to tune in and respond to the uniquely motivating spark that exists within each person in order to produce optimal performance.

People Deserve Respect – Give It
Third, if you’re a manager, you need to understand that unless you’ve taken in slaves, or God has taken you in as a partner, employees are not “your people.”  They are independent, competent adults who expect respect, and they don’t respond well when they’re treated like children or chattel.

People Want Success – Count on It
Once managers come to terms with those basic ideas, then they can ask the more relevant and appropriate question: “How can I get the best that people are willing and able to contribute to the success of this organization?”  Here are some keys to achieving that goal:

  1. Make sure that a person’s aptitude matches the requirements of the job. In other words, don’t try to put a square peg in a round hole.
  2. Get clear alignment on responsibilities, goals and expectations.
  3. Offer meaningful rationale for decisions and actions that answers the ever-present question, “What’s in it for me?”
  4. Provide well-defined, functional processes and accessible resources that people need to do the work they are expected to do.
  5. Establish a “guidance system” with relevant, understandable metrics and a visible means of communicating about them.
  6. Use “constructive accountability” when things go wrong, and always approach people as the source of the solution rather than the cause of the problem.

While employees are not “your people,” most of them want the same thing the company does – success.  Organizations that treat employees like partners rather than property in a common effort to succeed are more likely to get there.

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Are employees really an audience?

A few years ago, The Journal of Employee Communication Management published an article entitled “Employees Are Not an Audience.”  It was written by Glynn Young, who currently heads the Issues, Employee and Electronic Communications function for Monsanto Company.  His basic premise is simple yet significant – the job of organizational communicators should NOT be mainly to create and deliver messages to the employee audience, but rather to facilitate conversations within the employee community.

That distinction is more than an exercise in semantics.  It goes to the heart of why organizations struggle – and often fail – to generate meaningful employee engagement.  It also explains why organizations get caught in the wrongheaded notion that they need better “two-way” communication.  Seriously – is there any other kind?  Bottom line, if it isn’t two-way, it isn’t communication. It’s message distribution.

Community of Professionals
Even if we’re not conscious of it, we know in our guts that employees shouldn’t be treated as an audience when it comes to communication.  Just look at another metaphor often used for them – team.  Can you imagine how Michael Jordan or Tom Brady or Albert Pujols or other sports team members would react if their organizations communicated with them like an “audience?”  Pretty weird, huh?

But they’re different, right? After all, those people are “professionals.”  Consider for a moment, though, how an organization might run its business and communicate with its employees differently if they viewed employees as a “community of professionals” – professional accountants, professional order entry clerks, professional maintenance workers, professional production line workers — and so on?  You get the picture.

Sure, the challenges are different when you’re communicating with 12 to 50 people instead of 12,000 to 50,000.  But the need for people to feel that their organizations are communicating with them as professional members of a team is much the same.

Shifting from Messages to Conversations
Admittedly, logistics are more complex with larger groups, and the options for communicating differ from one organization to the next depending on numerous factors.  What’s more, truly interactive communication simply isn’t possible in all circumstances.  If the building is on fire, for example, that’s no time to engage an employee discussion group in considering various options on how to respond.  Still, organizations of any size and circumstance can and should shift from “sending messages” to “facilitating conversations” wherever possible by operating on two basic principles:

  • Stop using the phrase “communicate to,” and replace it with “communicate with.”  If the best you can do is send a message, say so – but don’t call it communication.
  • Where it’s feasible and appropriate, frame “messages” as “conversation points,” and create systematic ways for employees to converse and provide feedback on those topics.

While those principles are important for everyone in management to understand, it’s vital for people in charge of internal communications to follow them if they want to get employees truly engaged and strengthen working relationships within the “employee community.”

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Don’t let intuition fool you.

In the last issue of Inside Out (Proof for the profitability of engagement), I talked about what it takes to get employees engaged in systematic continuous improvement.  I also cited recent research that proves the huge bottom line impact you can produce from doing it effectively.

After 15 years of benchmarking and refining a process that’s been used by several Baldrige Award winning companies, we’ve found that some of the “tried-and-true” principles for accomplishing that goal aren’t really so true after all.  In fact, what actually works – what makes an improvement process a fully integrated system instead of a one-off activity – is somewhat counterintuitive.

“Bigger” isn’t always “better.”
One classic flaw in most suggestion programs is the emphasis on hitting “home runs.”  It seems like it makes sense to focus on the big wins at first glance, but there are two problems with that notion.  First, big things are hard to plan and implement, and not many employees are equipped to take them on.  So it limits participation.  Second, when employees get bigger incentives for bigger improvements, that’s where they tend to focus their attention – and they wind up walking right past hundreds of smaller ideas – the “base hits” – along the way.

The counterintuitive key is to set up the incentive structure to value every idea equally regardless of its size and impact.  In our ImaginAction Continuous Improvement System, we use a random drawing to accomplish that goal.  For every approved improvement that an employee implements (not just suggests), his or her name is entered once into a bi-weekly drawing.   Depending on the size of the organization, approximately 10%-20% of the names are pulled each time.  Importantly, the value of the awards is very modest – usually no more than $50 – regardless of whether the idea saved $100 or $10,000.  The value of the award has absolutely nothing to do with the value of the improvement.

That approach works for several reasons:

  1. People aren’t wasting time trying to cost-justify a lot of small improvements that any well-trained supervisor can see right away will make things work better, faster, cheaper, cleaner, easier or safer.
  2. It keeps employees focused on the little things that they have control over.
  3. It emphasizes the intrinsic merits of the improvements and the inherent motivation that everyone has to make things work better rather than the “prize money.”
  4. In the end, the most motivating factor for employees is that someone is actually taking their ideas seriously, helping them get those ideas implemented, and thanking them for their contributions.

Committees aren’t close enough to the action.

If you want to make sure that employee suggestions get evaluated and implemented, set up a suggestion committee to review and approve everything – right?  Wrong!  Dilbert would have a field day with that notion.  Setting aside all the jokes about committees in general, let’s look at how that process typically works.

An employee comes up with an improvement idea and submits a suggestion.  After going to the supervisor and probably to a manager, the idea eventually works its way to the suggestion committee.  That “team” gets together maybe once every month or so to review a slug of suggestions.  Of course, they’re doing double-duty.  Not only do they have their own jobs to do, now they have to take on another load.  What’s more, they often don’t know much about the improvements that are being proposed, so they have to do some research.  By the time they finally make a decision, it’s been weeks or even months.  Employees lose interest, and they aren’t very motivated to submit additional ideas.

So what’s the alternative?  Keep it local – focusing most decision-making where the improvements will be implemented.  You make it the job of every supervisor to review, evaluate and approve or decline the vast majority of improvement ideas.  You also make it the responsibility of employees to get their ideas implemented.  If they need help from their supervisor or someone else, they can get it – but they “own” it.

Here’s another benefit of that approach.  It bolsters the role of the supervisor as a coach.  To optimize that role, supervisors need the right kind of skills, of course.  They have to learn how to evaluate improvement ideas, lead process improvement meetings, encourage employee participation, help people get their ideas implemented and acknowledge them for their contributions.  Those duties also need to be included in the supervisor’s job description and assessed as part of their performance reviews.

While the principles are basic, making the shift from a “suggestion program” to a more viable and vital “improvement system” is not easy or “intuitive” for most people.  But when that system produces dramatically more implemented improvements than a traditional program, the rewards far outweigh the effort.

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Play, Work and Hell

If you believe the essence of good marketing is “relationship building” – both inside and outside the organization – here’s something to think about.  I’ve written before about a communication giant and former colleague named David Berlo.  He used to say that all activity in the workplace can be classified into one of three categories – play, work or hell.

Play is the stuff that people love to do – the things they enjoy so much they’d do it without pay if they didn’t need the money.   Work is the stuff that’s not great fun, but it’s acceptable enough that people will do it if they get something in exchange that they want and don’t have.  That’s why we call it “compensation.”   Hell is the stuff that no one wants to do, and you can’t pay them enough to do it.

So how do you optimize performance?
First, whenever possible put people where they can have “fun” – not frivolous or silly things, but the kind of work that people find genuinely enjoyable.  In part, that means finding out what gets people tuned in and turned on, and then creating a culture that lets people find the work that suits them best.  You can almost always count on people to do their best on the things they enjoy most.

Second, when it comes to run-of-the-mill work, it’s pretty basic – compensate people fairly, and the vast majority will give you a fair day’s effort in return.

Finally, for the stuff that makes work feel like hell.  Start by asking yourself if it really needs to be done.  A lot of crappy work exists only because it’s been hanging around forever, and no one ever asks why.  If the answer is no, stop doing it.  If the work does need to be done, ask yourself if it can be done another way.  If it can, change it so it’s not unbearable.  If it can’t be changed, and it still needs to be done, and you can’t pay people enough to do it, you play “Let’s make a deal.”  Ask employees what they would need in return if they’d be willing to do it.  Then negotiate until you get to a place that works for both of you.  If you can’t come to a mutual agreement, you better give it up.

There’s always one more option.
You could resort to the traditional management method of just forcing people, telling them they have to do it or there’ll be – of course – hell to pay.  In fact, the question “How can I motivate my people” is often a cover-up for the question, “How can I tell employees to go through hell, and make them like it.”  If you do decide to take that approach, be sure to prepare yourself for the resulting decline in employee engagement and the quality of customer relationships.  Hmmm … on second thought, what were those other options again?

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Change your cascade to a fountain.

A metaphor can be a wonderful thing.  It can also steer people down the wrong path.  Take the familiar term often used for disseminating information throughout an organization – the cascade.  Frequent readers of Inside Out know how fervent I am about avoiding the trap of believing that you’re communicating when all you’re really doing is sending out data and messages to an “audience.”  As I’m often fond of saying, that may be the best you can do sometimes, but don’t kid yourself into thinking that’s communication.  I have a stock reply for people who bemoan that they need more “two-way communication” in their organization – Seriously, what other kind is there?

Getting Stuck in a Downflow
The problem with the cascade as a metaphor for communication is that information only goes one way – top down.  Sometimes, organizations try to build in processes to help ensure that the people responsible for cascading the information to the ranks below actually do what’s expected of them.  But it’s rare to see any real accountability built into the system for doing it right.  What’s more, people are seldom given the opportunity to engage in a genuine conversation about the information they’re receiving.  The typical drill is more like “hear this and do that.”  On top of that, you rarely see a process to ensure that the questions and comments that come up at the bottom of the cascade find their way back up to the originators of the information.

Cascading Down the Drain
Part of the reason for this flawed approach to communication is that people take the cascade metaphor too literally.  The emphasis is on making sure that messages get from the top to the bottom of the organization – like a cascading waterfall.  That’s because they’re more focused on the process than the outcome.  Bottom line, if you don’t have some way of generating feedback with the same rigor you devote to sending out a “message,” it’s like information down the drain.

Creating a Fountain of Feedback
A better metaphor for the communication process – one that captures the interactive quality of how communication is supposed to work – is a fountain.  Think of it as a cascade with feedback.  That’s essentially what a fountain does – water flows around and around from top to bottom and back up again in a continuous loop.

The fountain also works better to illustrate the growing awareness that the main function of organizational communication should not be to create messages to be sent to audiences, but rather to facilitate conversations among partners and stakeholders.  What’s more, the interactive nature of a fountain approach to communication also captures the growing demand for transparency and authenticity in the workplace.  It’s a vivid reminder of the Marshall McLuhan quote I’ve cited before in Inside Out – “Propaganda ends where dialogue begins.”  Next time you’re tempted to use the term cascade, ask yourself if a fountain might be a better reflection of the principles and practices you want to embody in your organization’s approach to communication.

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Winning hearts and minds.

My wife, Dawn, is a “personal chef.”  That’s culinary lingo for a person who prepares meals for small groups of people with whom the chef makes a close personal connection.  Sometimes, it’s just for a couple, rarely for more than 15-20 people. Sometimes it’s for a single night, sometimes for weeks or months or even years.  Sometimes it’s haute cuisine, and sometimes it’s meat and potatoes.  But one thing is constant with all chefs like Dawn.  The connection they make with the people they serve is up close and personal – unlike most dining experiences where the chef is removed and shrouded behind kitchen walls.

Dawn is also an avid reader of all things related to food and cooking.  Not just magazines, but websites, food-related murder mysteries, biographies and anything else she can lay her hands on.  On our recent vacation, she read a book called A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg, a food writer who’s highly popular right now in the culinary blogosphere (www.orangette.blogspot.com).  It’s an autobiographical love story with the kitchen at its center – along with lots of Wizenberg’s recipes.

Everyone Needs a Chocolate Cake

Dawn was so smitten by the story that she was constantly regaling me and our daughters during our trip with something funny or touching from the book.  As she read the final chapter, she was visibly moved.  It begins with an assertion that “Everyone needs a chocolate cake in her repertoire,” and Wizenberg’s is called the “Winning Hearts and Minds Cake.”  She writes, “It’s not something you want to serve to someone you feel so-so about.  It’s what you serve when you want his undivided attention.”  Setting aside that she was talking about her fiancé, the sentiment she captures later in the chapter relates strongly to a central theme in past issues of Inside Out.

As I wrote in one recently, the typical approach to marketing is focused disproportionately on promotional activities like advertising – the attraction side of the marketing formula.   By comparison, relatively little effort and expense goes for relationship-building – the retention side of marketing.  While both are essential, numerous studies show that efforts aimed at retention typically are more lasting and cost effective in the business-building process.

Relationships = Recipe for Success

In the last paragraph of her book, Wizenberg compares cooking to life, saying that “what it all comes down to is winning hearts and minds. Underneath everything else, all the plans and goals and hopes, that’s why we get up in the morning, why we believe, why we try, why we bake chocolate cakes.”

As Dawn has experienced time and again – and what every marketing and communication professional must understand – you don’t win hearts and minds through promotion and persuasion.  You earn it through personal relationship-building – with people both inside and outside the organization, especially when you want their “undivided attention” – and when you want them to feel like they’re the center of your world.  In the end, that’s the surest recipe for heart-throbbing success – in cooking, in business and just about everything else in life.

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Mastering the balance of image and performance.

The other day, I was looking at different definitions for marketing.  In a nutshell, it’s described mainly as a process for getting in front of prospective customers and enticing them to buy your product or service.

  • The American Marketing Association defines marketing as the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.  Marketing practice tends to be seen as a creative industry, which includes advertising, distribution and selling.
  • On Wikipedia, marketing is defined as an integrated communications-based process through which individuals and communities discover that existing and newly-identified needs and wants may be satisfied by the products and services of others.
  • Webster’s dictionary describes marketing as the process or technique of promoting, selling, and distributing a product or service.

As far as they go, those definitions are okay, but their main thrust can be summed up in one word – attraction.   While that’s important, it doesn’t account for the other vital half of the business building equation – retention.

Invest in Keeping the Customers You Have
Depending on what sources you cite, it takes 2-20 times as much investment to attract a new customer as it does to keep an existing one.  But look at where most of the business building dollars go.  It’s mainly for advertising, sales and other promotional tools and techniques designed to acquire or attract new customers.  For many marketing people, that’s essentially how they view their role.

When it comes to retention, that’s usually handled by customer relations or consumer affairs or some similar function – and only a fraction of what’s typically spent on marketing is dedicated to the work they do.

Define Marketing as Relationship-Building
Rectifying that imbalance starts with a more encompassing definition of marketing – to create, sustain and continuously improve relationships with the organization’s key stakeholders.

At a minimum, that definition begs for marketing and customer relations people to be joined at the hip in working on the company’s business building efforts.  But the implications go farther than that – to the very heart of why marketing communication and employee engagement must go hand-in-hand.  It’s pretty simple, really.  If you define marketing as “relationship building,” then it’s no longer just a promotional activity for creative specialists.  Instead, it becomes an integral part of each employee’s job.  Everyone who has an impact on customer relations – directly or indirectly – ultimately shares responsibility for the company’s marketing success.

Live Up to Your Image
Loyalty programs like “frequent flyers” are designed as a retention device, but they’re usually in the form of promotional spiffs.  While that can be effective, it still falls short of the personal relationship building that goes beyond loyalty and leads ultimately to customer advocacy.

In the end, attraction comes more from the image you project, while retention comes more from the performance you deliver.  Both are vital, so don’t get suckered into putting disproportionate emphasis on getting customers in the front door – when keeping them is so much cheaper than replacing them after they slip out the back.

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