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Home >Opinion >To win the talent war, line manager, not HR, is the best weapon

With increased optimism of an economic upturn in the coming months, will companies be able to fully tap the opportunities afforded by it? Outperforming and winning in the marketplace depends on retaining and attracting the right talent. However, this is easier said than done.

Ultimately, it boils down to employee engagement. Surveys show that there is a strong correlation between employee engagement and customer advocacy (see figure). Companies must make employees passionate promoters of their workplace, who will put in the extra effort that creates superior experiences for customers and, in turn, superior financial returns for the firm. Research validates the point, showing that companies with high employee engagement grow up to 2.5 times faster than those with low-engagement levels.

A few years ago, a team at Apple Inc. analysed customer and employee feedback from its stores. They discovered that stores which regularly did well on employee engagement ranked high on customer loyalty while the reverse was also true. The team also studied customer responses to understand the reasons for the enthusiasm of loyal customers. While one would expect Apple’s products or store design to top the list, they were surprised to see the most common reason that loyal customers gave for their happiness was the way store employees treated them.

So how do you know whether your employees are truly engaged? Many companies use annual employee satisfaction surveys, often run centrally by HR. However, these surveys are long, infrequent, and perhaps, don’t measure the right thing! They tell you about how satisfied employees are. A much better measure of engagement is how likely employees are to recommend their workplace to a family member or friend, a metric known as eNPS, a sibling of the well-known Net Promoter System SM.

Recently, Bain & Co. along with Netsurvey polled 200,000 employees globally, including thousands in India. Based on our work with clients in India and elsewhere, and on these survey results, we have gleaned five themes that set employee engagement leaders apart:

Line supervisors, not HR, lead the charge

Some 87% of employees who recommend their company to a friend or colleague, also rate their direct supervisor highly. Supervisors should act as a catalyst to ensure workplace issues are resolved and their teams can openly discuss what policies or informal rules impede their engagement. HR’s role then simply shifts to helping leaders at all levels become enabled, empowered and accountable to get at what is hindering engagement.

Leaders should be adequately trained

Though it may seem intuitive, it can often be difficult for leaders to identify the most important employee issues. In employee focus groups held for a client, we asked supervisors what they thought their teams’ top concerns were. Most expected to see insufficient pay as a leading concern but were surprised to see that employees cited a desire for more training and more frequent appreciation—areas that supervisors thought were working well. It is important, thus, to emphasize on training that teaches leaders how to encourage honest, constructive discussions and handle tricky situations like requests for better pay or concerns about career progression.

Teams should rally around the customer

Members of the sales team, service technicians and others on the front line know intimately which aspects of the business annoy or delight customers. Engagement leaders regularly tap that knowledge by asking employees what the company could do to increase the number of customer promoters, and by listening hard to the answers. For example, at one of our clients—a telco major—every team holds a periodic meeting specifically to identify actions they can take to improve the customer experience and identify what members can do differently.

The act of soliciting ideas focused on customer experience signals to employees that their views matter. Thereafter, to lift engagement levels, one needs to put in place a closed-loop process to review the ideas and communicate back the outcomes.

Different strokes for different employees

Our research across different geographies of the world shows that drivers for employee engagement vary by region and culture. For example, in South Asia energy correlated the most strongly to high levels of engagement. A similar driver in Latin America is trust in management, while in the English-speaking world it is free from stress. Leaders need to be sensitive to employees’ priorities and learn to address them.

It’s about dialogue, not metrics

It’s tempting to obsess over engagement metrics through benchmarking and focus solely on numbers. But managing only by numbers will rarely lead to sustainable improvement. Leaders need to have more frequent and meaningful interaction with employees. At the telco major, a manager called in to supervise technicians reported that morale was low and NPS in single digits. Every week he highlighted examples of great performance, discussed what the team could do to improve, and related this to the individual customer feedback received. The team’s NPS improved 45 points in three months.

Given India’s serious skill shortage, keeping your talent engaged and motivated is key, especially in a country, which is one of the fastest-growing emerging markets and is expected to be on the uptick in the coming years.

This is the third in a five-part series on customer loyalty and advocacy.

Nikhil Prasad Ojha is a partner at Bain and Co. in Delhi and leads the strategy practice in India. Rob Markey is a Bain partner in New York and leader of the firm’s global customer strategy and marketing practice. Prashant Sarin is a Bain partner based in Delhi and leads the organization practice.

Net Promoter® and NPS® are registered trademarks of Bain & Co. Inc, Fred Reichheld and Satmetrix Systems Inc.

Net Promoter System SM and Net Promoter Score SM are trademarks of Bain and Co. Inc, Fred Reichheld and Satmetrix Systems Inc.

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