Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Car Brands Also Aim At Creating Customer 'Geniuses'

The success of Apple as a retailing giant, as well as a product developer and marketer, has spawned lots of imitators and would-be imitators.

And at this point, no industry is trying to mimic Apple's hands-on approach as much as the auto industry. In fact, this movement among car brands carries lots of potential for transforming a vehicle-purchase experience that still ranks right up there with public speaking as one of the leading anathemas to American consumers.

It seems that every time you turn around, one car brand or another is announcing a new emphasis on boosting dealership and early-ownership experiences for their customers by establishing their own version of the Apple Genius Bar.

The latest hand-raiser: General Motors, which is now dispatching 25 tech-savvy specialists to its 4,400 U.S. dealerships to show staffers how to teach customers about technology, according to Automotive News, and admittedly stealing a page from the Apple playbook.

Auto-industry initiatives also have involved setting up or expanding dedicated cadres of "technology" or "delivery" specialists in the showroom who are allocated the time and the training to hold the hands of new customers and walk them through the always-complex, sometimes-confusing gauntlet of learning a new vehicle's "infotainment" systems.

Such technologies have become a driving force in the industry's attempts to bring new and intriguing features to American consumers. But botching the handoff from gleaming showroom enticement to how customers actually manipulate the systems once they're on their own also has been an Achilles' heel for some -- notably Ford, whose ham-handed introduction of the MyFord Touch introduction two years ago is still hurting them in consumer esteem and third-party ratings.

We're encouraged by how deliberating automakers are addressing this entire new arena of customer satisfaction and, in fact, are attempting to leverage it into another powerful instrument for branding. "Customer experience" will never be taken for granted again.

And the brands that do the best job on this new frontier stand a good chance of picking up market share to reflect it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Hospital CEO in Detroit Brings Engagement to Town

In all of the attention to and handwringing over the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," at least one thing has gotten rather lost: discussion of the impact on health-care employees.

There are going to be both growth and opportunities as well as dislocation and loss for the more than 18 million people who work in the health-care sector in the United States, as Obamacare unfurls over the next several years.

And in order to make the transition a positive for their staffs, some health-care brands are trying to make sure that they are on the same page as their employees when requirements of the law begin taking hold in earnest in 2013.

That's a major reason why one big provider, Vanguard Health Services, is focusing on employee engagement like never before. Vanguard is a large operator of hospitals and other health-care facilities in notable markets including Boston, Detroit and Phoenix.

Having helped transform the culture of Vanguard's operations in New England, Joe Mullany is ready to lead a similar movement within Detroit Medical Center, another important Vanguard division. Mullany, currently president of DMC, is taking over as CEO from Michael Duggan, who helped build the southeastern Michigan giant into a strong player in a highly competitive market and has stepped down to consider a bid for mayor of Detroit.

"We had seven years of good success [in Massachusetts] basically taking a fragmented system of hospitals and bringing them together with a common mission, system and values, centering mostly on patient care and safety," Mullany told us. "We created a culture of engagement where employees feel that their job is to improve patient care every day."

Hiring people with engagement in mind is one crucial part of this strategy, Mullany said, in part relying on a "rigorous" assessment process. He also plans to launch an annual employee survey about engagement in Detroit just as he did in Massachusetts. And Mullany has formed an employee-engagement committee at DMC.

The new-CEO-to-be also has just started his own B2B blog just for the directors of DMC's various departments, a couple hundred strong. 

"It will give me direct access to them, and I hope keep them informed and motivated," Mullany said. "We have a lot going on here with all of our [$850 million in planned] construction, and improving quality measures, and our journey on safety.

"And I'll be asking the directors more about what they're seeing, to act as our eyes and ears. What stops them from being as successful as they want to be today? What issues and roadblocks are there? We hope to knock down those obstacles one by one."

Clearly, Mullany understands the importance of an engaged management and workforce as his company, and health-care providers across the country, stand on the precipice of the Obamacare era. Here's betting they don't fall off the cliff.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Votes Are In: Recognition Boosts Employee Engagement

Another close look has recognized the value of employee-recognition programs in strengthening corporate culture and, specifically, employee engagement.

About 72 percent of recently surveyed HR professionals siad that their company or organization's employee-recognition program serves to help the business "instill and reinforce corporate values to its employees," according to joint research for the Society for Human Resource Management and Globoforce consultancy. 

Even more -- 82 percent -- report that employee-recognition programs have a positive impact on employee engagement. Another 54 percent said that recognition programs help the organization retain employees.

Presumably reflecting such growing regard for the importance of recognition programs in boosting employe regard for the company, 6 percent of those HR professionals in the survey reported plans to launch a recognition program in the next 12 months.

"Highly engaged employhees can boost a company's profitability," Eric Mosley, CEO of Globoforce, said in a release about the survey.

We'll second that.

Friday, November 16, 2012

It's Reality TV, Now Starring: Employee Engagement

It's time to admit this: Reality TV has been good for employee engagement.

Sure, the still-exploding genre has given us abominable material like the Kardashians' lives and watching humans eat bugs. 

But also through programs such as CBS's Undercover Boss, reality TV has shone a light on and for companies that are doing a great job of employee engagement -- and some that need to do better.

The latest example will show this evening when Undercover Boss goes beneath the surface at Cinnabon Inc. with its young CEO, Kat Cole. "I was incredibly proud of our brand and developed an even deeper understanding and appreciation" for Cinnabon's employees, Cole told Nation's Restaurant News.

Meantime, a newer entrant in the reality-TV derby, Be the Boss, is taking the notion of employee engagement to a new level on the A&E Network by allowing two participants to compete for what turns out to be a chance to own a franchise of his or her own.

Auntie Anne's is participating in the show, offering up two of its lower-level employees to face off for what they think is a corporate promotion. But instead, the winner becomes a franchise partner with the company. Thus the show helps the brand appeal not only to consumers but also to the franchise community -- and its own employees.

"Its's kind of like a win-win," Andre Neyrey, CEO of Manhattan Restaurant Consultants, told QSR Magazine. "The brand's going to do well, they're going to look better to their customer base, and they're also going to build some employee loyalty."

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Apple Discovers Appeal of Employee Engagement

There's an interesting transition going on at Apple, America's largest and most successful company: It is becoming a brand more concerned about employee engagement.

At least that's how we interpret an article in this morning's Wall Street Journal that explains how Apple is making a significant transition from an almost military-like company where employees were largely motivated by a cult of personality around Steve Jobs.

In its place, new CEO Tim Cook is remaking the enterprise around some of the same kinds of employee-focused innovations that long have been staples at Apple's Silicon Valley competitors.

Earlier this year, for example, Apple launched a new initiative called "Blue Sky" that allows a small group of staffers to spend a few weeks on a pet engineering project, the newspaper said. That's similar to programs such as Google's "20% Time" that allows employees to spend up to one-fifth of their time on projects outside their normal responsibilties.

Apple under Cook also has introduced small corporate benefits such as discounts on Apple products and a charitable matching program, which the late Jobs hadn't bothered to institute.

What's going on here? A few things, we think.

First, Apple employees indeed are adjusting to an era that is new for them in the very simple fact that Jobs, a godlike figure who co-founded the company and then came back years later to revive it, is gone, and a "mere human" has succeeded him. Their expectations and demands for a tenure led by Cook, however successful it may be, naturally are going to be higher.

Second, with all of its tremendous successes as a product and as a brand over the last 20 years, Apple inevitably has entered a more competitive era in consumer electronics in which the mere fact of being an Apple product will mean less and less in the marketplace. So Cook must seek ways to motivate the Apple workforce for what promise to be more challenging times.

Third, Apple's stock prices has been easing, and it has been the prospect of the company's ever-rising stock price that has served as a huge incentive for many employees to stay.

It's not surprising that Cook has answered these challenges in part by trying to create a more engaged employee. In terms of employee retention, the Journal reports, some of the moves -- and the indications of a new culture -- already are working.

Give this new approach a fighting chance over the long term, we'd wager, and Cook will be able to continue to build his own successful legacy at the helm of the Company that Jobs Built.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Social-Gaming Your Way to Employee Engagement

With employees increasingly distracted by all kinds of electronic possibilities that can keep them from their actual work, more companies are figuring out that to keep their staffs engaged, they need to pull a bit of a jujitsu move. In other words, use the momentum of the distractions against the distractions themselves. Or, looked at another way, co-opt the distractions.

Using "gamification" for internal communications and employee engagement increasingly is one way to do this.
The problem, of course, is that the typical white-collar or service employee is being bombarded - voluntarily and involuntarily - by a fusillade of information. These days, that causes a pervasive lack of focus, as Joe Fisher has put it in a recent piece on

Much of this information comes from companies in the forms of e-mails, social-media postings and other missives meant to keep employees productive, efficient and for the most part happily engaged in their work. But most of the input simply serves as a distraction from those goals. According to estimates from the New York Times, the average American worker:
  • Consumes 34 gigabytes of information
  • Reads 100,000 words in a single day
And computer users change windows or check e-mail and other programs an average of 37 times every hour.

Into this kaleidoscope of communications comes the possibility of using gamification to more fully engage employees which gets their focus. It's something that can effectively cut through all of the other digital clutter - and in doing so, will help companies actually advance their employee-engagement goals.

"Gamification helps businesses engage with customers and motivate employees," Fisher writes, and we agree that it holds such possibilities. "By applying the same principles that inspire people to play games to websites and other online experiences, businesses can dramatically increase the size of their audiences, boost customer engagement, drive deeper employee motivation and increase revenues."

Fisher lists, as a case in point, Bluewolf, a consulting firm, "where employees can earn points by posting new topics for discussion or responding to the posts of others, and generating thoughtful dialogues that keep the cmopany's programs and perspectives fresh and innovative."

If some of this sounds like an amateurish way to run a serious company, we understand that concern. But the challenge in making tasks more interesting and engaging for employees only continues to grow as the rest of the world uses some of these same tactics, so you can make gamification work powerfully for you.

Friday, November 2, 2012

MyFord Lack of Touch Is Still a Problem -- and Growing

Ford has been accomplishing some great things lately through the internal-branding portion of its new "Go Further" brand positioning.

Inward has been in touch with Sarah Tatchio, who heads Ford's internal branding, and she has confirmed that all sorts of internal markers - both anecdotal and quantifiable - are showing that Ford's executives, managers and rank-and-file employees are embracing Ford attributes in a whole new way and seeking how to make the brand, indeed, go further on behalf of Ford customers.

But as is often the case when companies are doing most things right, doing one important thing wrong - and very visibly - can undermine everything else you might be accomplishing. Ford faces exactly that dilemma right now.

Ford's products enjoy high esteem among American consumers for meeting their transportation needs with a top-notch new lineup. And the brand continues to carry good will that it established when it spurned a taxpayer bailout in 2009. But despite of of this, Ford's brand equity actually could be going in the wrong direction for just one reason.

Why? It can't get MyFord Touch correct. And third-party organizations that also are widely respected by the American public, including Consumer Reports magazine and J.D. Power & Associates, have been downgrading Ford's performance in their quality ratings for almost two years now. In fact, Ford seems on its way to stealing defeat from the jaws of victory.

Its ground-breaking first infotainment system, Sync, garnered a lot of interest in Ford vehicles by younger consumers, especially -- and a lot of sales. But when it brought out MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch last year, essentially Sync 2.0, Ford made the mistake of trying to jam too many possibilities into the system and then designing ambiguous and even confusing customer interfaces for those more numerous and more complex functions.

One example: too many requirements to touch the system screen to make it work, not enough traditional buttons and switches.

Ford customers have been penalizing the company for foisting this problem on them for nearly two years now, at least in Power and Consumer Reports customer ratings and expert evaluations. Company executives said about 18 months ago that they grasped the seriousness of the problem and were moving to correct it. And they came up with a software upgrade that they sent to all users.

The result? Not good. Consumer Reports downgraded Ford yet again in its latest annual report on vehicle reliability, plunging the brand down to 27th among 28 total brands in the study, almost entirely because of the MyFord Touch problem.

Mind you, the MyFord Touch fiasco isn't exactly a problem of perceived lack of quality, like poor interior materials or squeaky brakes would be downgraded. And it's not exactly a safety concern like Toyota's unintended-acceleration problem was -- though some drivers are made nervous by how long it takes sometimes to find their way around a MyFord Touch screen.

But whatever it's called, Ford buyers are not happy with MyFord Touch nor how long it's taking Ford to rectify the situation. And the longer it goes on, the more Ford risks severe long-term damage to the brand equity it has so brilliantly and steadfastly built over the last several years.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Another Example of Engagement Boosting the Bottom Line

We've often said that engaged employees lead to higher customer satisfaction, using both strong anecdotal examples as well as quantified research.

Now yet another endorsement of that truth has come out: a new study by Northwestern University researchers which showed that companies could achieve revenue increases of as much as 23 percent by investing wisely in communication, recognition and incentive programs to improve employee engagement.

Professor Frank Mulhern and associates studied employee behavior and the link to increased customer spending at an international hotel chain. They found that the key drivers of brand value to hotel customers were fast and efficient check-in, employe efforts to satisfy customers, hotel options and amenities, and precision in service.

Of course, all but the third of those criteria are highly affected by the engagement of employees not only in their jobs but in their mission to bring satisfaction to customers. And the researchers found that a 10-percent increase in one key drive -- the extent to which employees tried to satisfy customers -- translated into a 23-percent increase in customer spending.

These are the kinds of bottom-line results that we hear about all the time from our clients and in our research. And they're the sort of significant improvements that are available to just about any brand, regardless of what business they're in. It just takes a strategy for brand engagement to realize them.