The following is an excerpt taken from Paul Barton’s book, Maximizing Internal Communication: Strategies to Turn Heads, Win Hearts, Engage Employees and Get Results, available on Amazon or right here on our website.
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By Paul Barton, ABC
Engaged employees also can influence external audiences. In fact, the more effective internal communication is, the less an organization needs to rely on its external communication efforts. That’s because employees equipped with the right information can become “Brand Champions” for an organization. They can become an effective communication external channel.
This aspect of internal communication is another reason why many believe the employee audience is an organization’s most important audience. Communication consultant Shel Holtz put it this way: “The employee audience is the most important because it can undermine the best communication effort or overcome the worst.”
For retail and service-oriented businesses, frontline employees are the face of those organizations to their customers. They are not just the first line of defense for a brand; they are the brand as far as customers see it.
An organization can project a brand image through its public relations and marketing campaigns, but it is the interactions between employees and customers, the interactions employees have with one another that customers observe and the actual experiences that customers have with an organization that prove whether that brand image is authentic or just another advertising slogan.
Authentic brands are built from the inside out, and effective internal communication is crucial to branding success. I believe the best way to build an authentic brand starts with hiring people who already embody some of the brand’s characteristics and then reinforcing the brand through training, appropriate policies and ongoing internal communication. A brand must be authentic if the messages sent out by investor relations, public relations and marketing to their external audiences are to be believed. Brands become authentic when their claims align with the actual customer experience. The interaction between an employee and a customer is often that proof point. It is hard to imagine that employees can effectively engage customers unless they are first engaged themselves with their organization.
Think about a company you are familiar with that has a really strong brand. Now think about your own interactions with that company’s employees. If the company has a strong brand, that company’s employees most likely “live the brand” and make the brand authentic. Think about the interactions between employees that you observe. If employees are working cooperatively, supporting and smiling at one another, the brand image is enhanced. If employees smile at customers but grouse at each other, the brand image suffers, and if they are rude to each other and their customers, the brand is undermined.
Most people agree that Southwest Airlines is a company that is true to its brand image. Southwest’s marketing and advertising efforts tout fun as part of their brand, and they project an image of doing business differently than other airlines. Do the employees of Southwest Airlines live up to that brand promise? You bet they do. Consider this example from my personal experience. When my son Matthew was 9 years old, he broke his arm just a week before we flew to Disney World for vacation. As we boarded our Southwest Airlines flight, the flight crew noticed Matthew’s cast and asked whether they could sign it. Every flight attendant, the captain, and the first officer all signed the cast. The captain invited Matthew into the cockpit and had him sit in the captain’s chair to sign his cast. He noticed how articulate Matthew was and invited him to make the “Welcome Aboard” cabin announcement over the PA system. These simple acts cost the airline nothing, but they cemented Southwest’s brand image in the minds of our family and everyone else on that flight forever. Similar acts repeated over and over by employees on flight after flight make the airline’s brand image authentic and make customers fiercely loyal to Southwest. Matthew was so inspired that he later learned how to fly an airplane himself.
Effective internal communication can help create and sustain Brand Champions, and that can boost profitability. The correlation is simple: effective internal communication creates Brand Champions who create engaged customers who in turn create more sales and bigger profits.
To be effective, Brand Champions need information. Consider this fictitious example (based in part on a true story): The ABC Pet Supply Company’s corporate headquarters provided employees in its stores with clear instructions about how to set up a large display in each store to sell dog collars and leads. But store employees wondered why their company had to carry so many collars and leads of every color and texture under the sun. Store managers were concerned about how much retail space the display required and the floor employees complained that the large display took a long time to set up. The employees knew exactly what to do, but they didn’t know why they were doing it. They set up the display, but over the next few weeks, sales of collars and leads were mediocre. Through a previously established feedback process, comments regarding the display filtered up from the store director to the district manager and eventually to the chief operating officer. It was clear the store employees didn’t understand the marketing strategy behind the display. But then, how could they understand? They had been told what to do but not why they were doing it.
The employee communicators were brought in to help. Working with the store management team, they drafted message points for store directors to share with their store employees during the morning start-up meetings that every store held. The start-up meetings had been held for the past several years and often included messages from the corporate office designed to help explain company strategies. The message points explained the rationale for the display: Marketing research showed that the company’s target audience (female, 25 to 35 years old, upper income, prone to dote on their pets) bought dog collars and leads primarily as a fashion accessory, not just as a necessity. The customers wanted variety, lots of variety. Other stores, including Walmart and Target, carried some collars and leads but did not have as much variety. Once they understood the business strategy, store employees approached customers with a new attitude. They understood what they were doing and why they were doing it. They began to interact with customers with comments such as “This collar matches your purse, and, of course, you’ll want the matching leash as well.”
Sales of collars and leads increased dramatically over the next few months and so did customer satisfaction. Customers were willing to pay a little more for collars and leads because they appreciated the wide variety and because they felt the store employees understood their needs better. Another benefit of this effective internal communication was increased employee job satisfaction. Once employees understood what the sales strategy was and how important their role was, they were no longer complaining about the display’s size or the amount of time it took to set it up. They were eager to learn more and to share the information with others.
In addition to customer interactions, Brand Champions can help spread the word about an organization to family members, friends, neighbors, and others in the community and beyond. In many instances, Brand Champions have unique credibility with external audiences that make their messages highly effective. Have you ever heard something about a company in the news and then asked someone you knew who worked at that company for his opinion on the matter? If that employee worked for an organization with good communication, he probably gave you an answer that helped you understand the issue better. Brand Champions can facilitate understanding and promote organizational messages to external audiences, and those audiences can then spread the word to people they know and so on and so on.
Brand Champions can help organizations in their recruiting efforts to attract and retain the best and brightest talent available. After all, who doesn’t want to work for an organization with happy, highly motivated employees?
When a crisis or controversy strikes a company, Brand Champions can defend their organization in more credible ways than public relations and marketing messaging. Given the right information, Brand Champions can have a significant influence. But without adequate information, even an organization’s strongest employee advocates can be left speechless.
Here’s another example from my personal experience that illustrates the power of arming employees with messaging. The Environmental Protection Agency made a change in which minerals it was going to include on its annual Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) report. That change would cause our company, the nation’s largest copper mining company, to go from not being on the TRI list at all to being at the top of the list. Fearing the news media would misunderstand the information and create dramatic headlines touting Phelps Dodge as the nation’s top polluter once the change went into effect, we decided to get out in front of the issue by telling our side of the story first. We crafted messaging for the news media, key public officials, and our own shareholders and employees. We created press releases, fact sheets, letters, and newsletters.
The company wanted to enable its employee Brand Champions to help carry its messages. We recognized that many of our employees were second and third generation miners. Mining was in their blood. They were eager to defend what they did for a living. We already had communicated the TRI change to all of our employees through company newsletters and team meetings. But we decided to go a step further. We created a wallet-sized fact sheet that our employees could carry with them and use to discuss the facts about the TRI across their neighbor’s fence, in the grocery aisle or wherever they were. The fact sheet allowed employees to tell the company’s side of the story.
The dramatic headlines never materialized, perhaps because the company was able to get out in front of the controversy and educate the news media and community. Employees felt that much more committed to the company. After all, we had trusted them to help carry an important message. And, in doing so, we sent a subtle message to our employees—we’re all in this together.
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