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  • Brian Kearney

Meaningful Work is the Key to Employee and Customer Loyalty

Updated: Feb 19


The chronic condition of the service industry is persistent employee turnover and ongoing pressure to improve customer loyalty. The antidote is to nurture an environment of meaningfulness for your employees while reducing the inhibitors of authentic engagement. Employees want meaningful work that drives them to stay and engage with your customers. Customers want engaging employees, which drives their behavior for loyalty to your company; therefore, meaningful work aligns employees and customers to improve your profitability.


You might think this sounds too simple and too good to be true, but it is not. The challenge is to create a workplace that promotes meaningful work and it is not a cookie-cutter approach; in fact, the service industry has created such a complex environment of data analysis, strict processes, and layers of technology that this complexity is impacting employees’ ability to give customers what they want, while reducing their ability to find meaning in their work. We will explore how you can manage through this complexity to help you and your people find meaningful work.

A Search for a Better Way 

I have spent my career in the customer service industry trying to help leaders figure out why service is so difficult and costly to manage. Unfortunately, the gains produced were marginal, not revolutionary. The service industry continues to battle growing dissatisfaction amongst employees, customers, and senior leadership with the service that is being provided today. I always believed there was a better and easier way. I remember a focus group, where a call center agent said, “I love my job and helping people. I just wish my company would let me do it.” That always stuck with me. If people really do find meaning in helping others, why aren’t call centers, retail stores, restaurants, hotels, and hospitals filled with an overwhelming number of employees who find their work rewarding? Furthermore, why aren’t customers consistently happy after engaging with those employees? My journey led me to meaningful work, which provides a compelling approach that delivers what employees, customers, and companies want; however, there needs to be a two-pronged approach because we are doing many things in the industry that are causing grind for employees and reducing their meaning at work.

Meaningful work may sound like a new idea, but it has been studied since the industrial revolution. There is a healthy amount of research to support it. It is estimated that 70% of people want more meaning at work. (Linda Holbeche, 2004)  A recent article in the Harvard Business Review stated that “9 out of 10 people are willing to earn less money to do more-meaningful work. They’d be willing to forego 23% of their entire future lifetime earnings in order to have a job that was always meaningful.” (Shawn Achor, 2018)  W.F. Cascio, a researcher at the University of Colorado, states, “Researchers have shown meaningfulness to be more important to employees than any other aspect of work, including pay and rewards, promotion, or working conditions. Meaningful work can be highly motivational, leading to improved performance, commitment, and satisfaction.” (W.F.Cascio, 2003)


The Value of Meaningful Work

You hear quite a bit these days about employee satisfaction, engagement, and happiness; however, those are outputs. The best input is meaningful work to reach these outcomes and more. A Sussex University study performed by Bailey, Madden, Alfes, and Fletcher found that, “In fact, those moments when people found their work meaningful tended to be far richer and more challenging than times when they felt simply motivated, engaged, or happy.” (Catherine Bailey, 2016)  Employees want meaningful work, but how does that align to what customers want?



In CCMC’s recent Rage survey, they asked what customers wanted from service operations and whether they got it. They found that 8 of the top 10 things customers wanted related to engaging employees, but only 1 out of 3 customers were getting what they wanted. (Broetzmann, 2017)  Another Harvard Business Review article found that, “Meaning is one of the strongest drivers of an engaged workforce.” (Erickson, 2011)  According to the Journal of Hospitality Management, employees with meaningful work go the extra-mile in dealing with customer problems and facilitating customer needs. (Karatepe, 2013) So, what is the benefit to companies who promote meaningful work and engaging customer service?


Employees with meaningful work are 69% less likely to quit, and generate an additional $9,078 per worker, per year. (Shawn Achor, 2018)  In addition, according to CVENT and Gallup, when employees are highly engaged, customer retention rates are 18% higher (Colloquy, 2014) and earnings per share are 147% higher (Randall Beck, 2014) than their competition. The impact meaningful work has on employee behavior is increased engagement, motivation, performance, and retention. The impact engaging employees have on customer behavior is increased purchasing, loyalty, referrals, and first contact resolutions. These employee and customer benefits significantly impact a company’s profitability. 


What is Meaningful Work?

We define meaningful work to be the realization of moments with distinct purpose that arise from the act of serving others, and which are beyond what an individual is compensated to produce. The opportunity of the service industry is that meaningful moments will arise simply from the act of authentically serving others. When an employee experiences enough meaningful moments on a regular basis, the work itself becomes meaningful. This is different than meaning at work or meaning from work.


Meaning at work could be derived from good working conditions, positive relationships with co-workers, and fun events at work. Meaning from work is related to the benefits of working, like pay and benefits derived from work. Although meaning at work and meaning from work can lead to increased employee satisfaction and happiness, they do not impact the meaning from their actual work. Meaningful work is the critical factor to significantly increasing employee and customer loyalty. 


Characteristics of Meaningful Work

Researchers have studied the most important characteristics of meaningful work and what we think you should know are the following:

  • Meaningful moments lead to meaningful work. 

  • These moments occur when people realize their impact on others.

  • Meaningful moments occur more frequently when people are allowed to be themselves and use their unique talent while serving others.

  • Meaning is personal; therefore, meaningful moments can’t be manufactured.

  • Management can nurture an authentic environment where moments occur naturally.

Most of the time, a person’s daily tasks will not have significant meaning; however, if the person has enough meaningful moments in their work, they will have an overall sense that their work is meaningful. Another benefit of meaningful work is that it increases perseverance to endure daily challenges and tasks to reach those meaningful moments. One example of this is from a caregiver who stated, “Had it not been for the patients, or the fact that I’m successful, I would burn out since we are experiencing a lot of pressure. But the fact that you see that you’re doing good makes you want to keep going.” (Nielsen, 2016)  

The common factor that leads to meaningful moments is when the work positively impacts someone else. The academic term for this is self-transcendence. Too often, our approach in the service industry has been focused on what we can do for our employees, and not on what we can do to better help them serve others. I would guess that most of us are familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that outline human needs in the order of physical, safety, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization; however, many might be surprised to find out that Maslow added a final need before he died. The final and greatest need he added was self-transcendence. “While self-actualization refers to fulfilling your own potential, self-transcendence refers literally to transcending the self and, if successful, self-trancenders often have what Maslow called peak experiences, in which they transcend the individual ego.” (Messerly, 2014)  Said in a different way, we have the need to go beyond ourselves to make a difference for others. This is good news for the service industry, since it has the high potential for work to be meaningful simply be serving others.

So, what is the key to creating the meaningful moments with customers? They will occur more frequently when employees are allowed to be themselves and use their unique talents while serving others. Employees who use their strengths, skills, and abilities every day are six times more likely to be engaged at work. (Peter Flade, 2015)  Employees want to do what they do best: be genuine and feel like they are making an impact with customers. When they do, they have a sense of ownership for the interaction and, therefore, can experience more rewarding and meaningful moments. These moments can’t be manufactured because each person defines what is meaningful to them (Catherine Bailey, 2016); however, management can nurture an authentic environment where moments occur naturally. It can also do the opposite and destroy meaning for employees. 


What is Grind?


Grind occurs when employees are driven to authentically engage with customers while simultaneously being held back from doing so. This leads to frustration, confusion, isolation, and feelings that the degree of difficulty of the job is not worth the level of pay. The result is high employee turnover, low engagement, and dissatisfied customers.

Examples of grind may vary by industry. In healthcare, it could be strict regulations preventing them from authentic engagement or being prevented from spending the time needed with patients or their families. For retail employees, they may not be given the proper customer service skills to authentically engage with customers. Call center employees face many sources of grind which can be:

  • Over scripting which inhibits authenticity

  • Misaligned quality checklists that are company centered rather than customer focused

  • Rigid procedures that prevent them from using their own talents 

  • Complex systems that are difficult to navigate

All industries, however, have a common source of grind. According to Bailey and Madden at Sussex University, “Poor management is at the top of the list of meaning destroyers.” (Catherine Bailey, 2016)


The common cause of grind is when a company puts its own goals and metrics ahead of what employees and customers want. When a company and its management are focused on driving employees to achieve company goals that conflict with what customers want, it causes intense grind. The employee must choose between serving the company or the customer. Most employees choose to serve the company because they are more incented to do so; however, grind leads to the negative employee behaviors of disengagement and turnover. It also leads to bad customer behaviors like reduced purchasing, increased churn, negative comments, and repeat calling. Companies often create an approach to customer service where they over analyze the data, create rigid process to control employees, and usually believe technology is the solution. The interesting paradox is that their approach is actually causing the problem.


Imagine if leadership of a company came to the head of contact center customer service and said:


“We have created a great approach to customer service leadership. We have hired the best analytical minds in the industry and they are going to record all of your activities each day. They will listen to what you say, track your work processes, and review all of your unproductive time. Then scripts will be created for your meetings and one-on-one discussions, so you can be more efficient and effective in your job. You will also now have a score card of all the major and conflicting results we want from you. You may not deviate from our plan and will be held accountable for the results. You will have no voice in any of this and will be disciplined if you don’t follow the process, even if you do somehow achieve the desired results. Aren’t you glad we care enough about you to make this investment?”


I think the reaction of the service leader would be obvious. They would never agree to it; however, it is what so many service industry leaders require from their employees. I want to defend service industry leaders. They are not bad people. Instead, this has become the industry standard approach and they don’t always know what they can do differently to get their executives and cross-functional teams to agree on a different approach. In other words, they too are experiencing a heavy amount of grind and desperately want to reduce it. They do want to serve their people and, thereby, make their own work meaningful. We believe that service leaders can bring about meaningful work and engaging employees for customers; management is the key to both endeavors and the process is simpler than you would expect.


Intent to Quit is Primarily Influenced by Meaning & Grind

In our 2018 employee study of multiple companies utilizing our 5thTalent@WorkQuestionnaire we measured the impact of meaningful work and grind against intent to quit.  The study found that 67% of an employee’s intent to quit was influenced by the amount of meaningful work & grind they were experiencing.  As you can see from the graph, reducing grind and increasing meaning should significantly reduce employee turnover. It also revealed that if an employee is experiencing high levels of meaningful work they are more resilient to the impacts of grind.  Please contact at Info@info.5thtalent.com us if you are interested in joining our 2019 study on meaningful work utilizing our 5thTalent@WorkQuestionnaire. It will include measuring the impact of meaningful work and grind against employee turnover, employee performance, and customer satisfaction.  


5 Steps on the Path to High Levels of Meaningful Work


“Avoiding the destruction of meaning whilst nurturing an ecosystem generative of feelings of meaningfulness emerged as the key leadership challenge,” according to Bailey and Madden. We recommend 5 key steps on the path to meaningful work.


1.    Understand Your Current Environment for Meaningful Work

Determine your current level of meaningful work and grind. You can do this through a survey or interviews with your management and employees. Current employee surveys will usually miss these aspects of work but could still be useful in your analysis. Our experience is that the service industry has a high latent potential for meaningful work, since helping others is the primary job function. This data is important to help you, your organization, your executives, and the cross-functional departments to understand the potential for meaningful work to increase employee and customer loyalty.

2.    Conduct a Grind Assessment

You should identify the level of grind in your organization and follow that up with an assessment of what is causing the most grind. Once again, you can do this through a series of surveys, interviews, and data analysis. It is important to know what is causing grind if you want to reduce it. Part of your grind analysis is to understand what customers want. Remember, the definition of grind is when employees are driven to authentically engage with customers while simultaneously being held back from doing so. Many companies have customer satisfaction data but they don’t know what customers want the most or if they are getting it. 

3.    Create a Grind Reduction Program 

The findings from your meaningful work survey and grind assessment will enable you to conduct an effective collaboration with your executives and cross-functional departments to identify specific opportunities to reduce grind and develop a grind-reduction action plan. Some projects may be immediate and easy, while others may take some additional time and investment.

4.    Implement an Authentic Service Program 


Develop a program that will nurture authentic service that is rewarding to your customers and employees. The program should embrace the following key elements of meaningful work:

  • Enable people to genuinely serve customers 

  • Provide a degree of autonomy and ownership

  • Enable people to use their own unique talent 

  • Create a sense of belongingness and a shared greater purpose

  • Allow your people to provide feedback to improve the organization

It is critical to begin with your management. Work with your management to create your authentic service program and train them to be the owners and implementers of the program for employees. They will be the ones who nurture an environment that will promote meaningful work, rather than destroying it.

5.    Create a Center of Excellence


A best practice is to start by creating a center-of-excellence for authentic service that promotes meaningful work. It is easier to start with a smaller group and work to optimize your approach before you roll it out to your entire enterprise. The center of excellence provides you a working model with proven data to get the buy in from your company for a large-scale roll out, including outsourcers. The center of excellence will continue to be a nerve center for your organization to train other operations and to be a test bed for continuous improvement.


Meaningful Work Requires a Human Approach

Do you want your employees to be authentic people you develop and mentor with the freedom to serve while using their unique talent? Unfortunately, in the contact center industry there has been an opposite trend. Instead of an investment in people, and providing a degree of autonomy, many contact centers turn agents into puppets. The idea is that we tell them what to say and what to do, and we don’t value their decision-making ability or feedback. When employees, and even customers, become a means to an end for a company, it has a negative impact on everyone. No one wants to be a puppet or talk to one. It leads to employee disengagement, employee turnover, customer dissatisfaction, and customer churn. Think about when you call a contact center and how someone talks to you. It is scripted, has a rigid procedure, and you feel that the real company does not want to talk to you. Instead, the company offers you a person who acts as its barrier between it and its customers. The root of the issue is that we have dehumanized service for the employee and for the customer. I am seeing all these discussions about the CX (customer experience), but the recommended solutions are data analysis, more processes, and new technology. Although they can have their value, quite often they are compounding the problem. I think a human solution is what is needed.


Other industries, like retailers, restaurants, hotels, and hospitals do not try to turn their employees into puppets. Instead, their problem is that their employees are receiving little to no training or managerial support. This is also dehumanizing. Once again, the employee is a means to an end. The solution is to promote meaningful work, which requires a human approach. Knowing that the problem is the dehumanization of service, your odds of success are now dramatically higher.


The Rewards of Grind Reduction and Meaningful Work 


This endeavor to reduce grind and promote meaningful work has many rewards. It is how you can align the wants of employees, customers, and your company. When employees have meaningful work, they are loyal, engaging, self-motivated, and high performing. When customers get engaging employees, they repurchase, remain loyal, provide referrals, and contact companies less. These employee and customer behaviors drive company profitability; therefore, meaningful work provides a highly profitable and sustainable approach to customer service.




Bibliography

Broetzmann, S. (2017). The Customer Rage Story: An Independant Study of Customer Problems and Complaint-Handling Experiences. Alexandria, VA: Customer Care Measurement & Consulting.

Catherine Bailey, a. A. (2016). What Makes Work Meaningful — Or Meaningless. MIT Sloan Management Review.

Colloquy. (2014). For Loyal Customers, Look to Your Employees. Colloquy .

Erickson, T. (2011). Meaning Is the New Money. Harvard Business Review.

Karatepe, O. (2013). High-performance work practices and hotel employee performance: The mediation of work engagement. International Journal of Hospitality Management.

Linda Holbeche, a. N. (2004). In Search of Meaning at Work. Roffey Park Institute.

Messerly, J. G. (2014). Summary of Maslow on Self-Transcendence. Reason and Meaning .

Nielsen, M. S. (2016). Meaning Creation and Employee Engagement in Home Health Caregivers.

Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 30(1), 57-64.

Peter Flade, J. A. (2015). Employees Who Use Their Strengths Outperform Those Who Don't. Gallup Workplace.

Randall Beck, a. J. (2014). Why Great Managers Are So Rare. Gallup Business Journal.

Shawn Achor, A. R. (2018). 9 Out of 10 People Are Willing to Earn Less Money to Do More-Meaningful Work. Harvard Business Review.


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