Driving integrated employee and customer engagement from the top

24th May 2015


The importance of senior sponsorship

Having worked in employee and customer engagement for over 20 years, there’s one rule that works across every company, every industry and every geography: without sponsorship from senior leaders, these issues will never take hold as a recognised driver of business performance.


This sponsorship and support matters for a couple of reasons:

  • If the CEO and the SLT get the link between employee and customer engagement and then between these two issues and business performance, it sets the tone for the whole organisation. When we worked with Sainsbury’s for five years during the heyday of its growth, Justin King, the then CEO, totally got the service-profit chain. He knew if the retailer engaged their colleagues, then they in turn would engage their customers and stores would ultimately grow. His senior leadership team were united around this and enjoyed 36 quarters of consistent growth.


  • To bridge the link between employee and customer engagement, some organisational silos need to be brought down. Too often, HR or IC looks after the employee engagement side of the coin while, very separately, marketing looks after the customer engagement piece. Senior leaders (and, again, CEOs especially) play a key role here. For organisations to gain from the benefits of a truly joined-up approach, collaboration between these functions plus Finance (holding the all-important performance metrics) needs to happen.


Examples of innovative, integrated thinking

In many firms, neither of the above things happens. In a growing number they are starting to be done better. In a small handful of organisations, CEOs are really taking the bull by the horns. Here are two examples we think illustrate the point well but in very different sectors:


  1. Grant Thornton, one of the world’s largest professional service firms, recently announced in the UK that two important changes at the top of the firm were going to bring the whole employee and client experience pieces much closer together. The CEO elect, Sacha Romanovitch, spent much of her career at GT building up its main practices: audit and tax and then advisory. So she has a deep knowledge of the business and its client base. Most recently, however, she was the partner with responsibility for people and culture. So she gets the employee engagement piece too. The accountancy firm looks set to benefit from having a CEO with a truly integrated outlook.
  • Appointments such as that of the CEO are rare: very few CEOs go straight from a “people” role into the top job; Grant Thornton’s new leader in the UK looks set to bring a perfectly balanced perspective of both people and clients and is intentionally structuring the business to leverage the links between the two.
    • To aid this, Norman Pickavance, previously HRD at Morrisons, has been brought in to support the new CEO as Head of Brand and Culture. Again, the appointment seems perfectly placed to bring together the employee and client aspects of the firm.


  1. Going back to the Sainsbury’s example, one of the appointments which we felt was truly visionary under Justin King’s leadership was that of Gwynn Burr as Customer Service and Colleague Director. Sainsbury’s created the role for Burr in June 2010 following the departure of Imelda Walsh who had held a more traditional HRD role. The move was heralded as forward thinking, bringing marketing and HR together. Burr’s responsibility combined the core marketing disciplines (customer service, PR/corporate communications, CSR and sponsorship) along with the main people aspects (employee engagement and experience, recruitment, training and development, leadership development, reward and recognition etc.).
    • In the role, Burr spoke about how this enabled Sainsbury’s to remove traditional silos and better align employees to the retailer’s growth plans. She focused on driving maximum benefit from the supermarket company’s sponsorship of the 2012 Paralympics, bringing the lessons from sport into employee learning.
    • The work done, brought together thinking, planning and measurement around 160,000 colleagues and the over 24 million customer transactions the retailer has per week.   And the integration agenda was strong at every level: with the Board, with senior leaders, store/depot and functional managers and right through team leaders and frontline colleagues.
    • Our work at Sainsbury’s measuring employee engagement and modelling the data to link it to customer and growth outcomes showed how effective this integration became, with the level of colleague engagement explaining around 15% of a store’s year-on-year growth. (This was highlighted in the “Engage For Success” task-force’s White Paper on the evidence around driving business success through employee engagement.)


So what?

There are some key lessons here for businesses who want to drive their business performance in a more integrated way:

  1. CEOs and senior leaders need to sponsor an integrated approach to employee and customer or client engagement
  2. This needs to be supported by more “joined up” organisational design and structure with accountabilities around the two key issues brought closer together
  3. A firm’s measurement systems need to support this “knitted together” mind-set: employee and customer metrics need to be aligned and analysed together to glean the real learnings about what you can do with your people to optimise the customer experience and drive growth.