Human Sigma: Strong on Description; Weak on Prescription

I just finished reading the new book Human Sigma; Managing the Employee-Customer Encounter by John Fleming and Jim Asplund.  I’m excited that an integrated perspective on employees and customers is getting the attention it deserves.  The book is well written and makes a strong case for the importance of both employee engagement and customer engagement.  The authors are executives at Gallup and, as might be expected from an organization that’s sweet-spot is measurement, the book does a solid job of discussing the measurement of customer and employee engagement.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed with the book for three very important reasons:

  • First, I’m concerned that the focus on employee-customer encounters will perpetuate a flawed belief amongst many executives that the solution to improving the customer experience is about fixing the behaviors of front line employees and managers.  Of course, what customers’ experience is often highly dependent on the interactions they have with front-line employees.  The authors do make a strong point about empowering front-line employees.  However, we’ve found that customer experience shortfalls are almost always a result of organizational issues that are closer to the core of the business.  In most cases, the behavior of the front line employees is just an outward expression of organizational conditions and culture that have deep roots in the beliefs, values, leadership, and legacy of the organization.  Visualize a tree; addressing front-line employee behavior is like hacking at the leaves rather than striking at the root of the problem.
  • Second, the prescriptions described in the book include conducting ongoing Human Sigma measurement and appointing a Chief Human Sigma officer.  In addition, the last two chapters provide short descriptions of actions like: brand alignment, customer advisory counsels, selecting for talent, employee communications, recognition, rewards, motivational retreats, etc…  While these actions may contribute to some amount of improvement, they are superficial bordering on naïve.  They substantially underestimate the complexity of shifting deeply entrenched organizational behavior.  We’ve found that the fundamental character of customers’ and employees’ experiences with an organization are largely determined by the “unwritten rules” that drive the real behavior of individuals throughout the organization… from executive management all the way to the front lines.  Those “unwritten rules” are the sensible ways for those individuals to behave given a deeply embedded set of motivators (what’s important?), enablers (who’s important?), and trigger (how do people get what they want?) that exist in the organizational system.   Any effort to improve the customer and employee experiences that doesn’t deliberately surface and address these barriers is unlikely to shift the real behavior of the organization. (See: Why Customer Experience Initiatives Fail? and A Break in the Service Profit Chain: Why Increases in Employee Engagement Don’t Improve the Customer Experience?)
  • Finally, the book proposes Human Sigma as a measurement that falls between 1 and 6 and summarizes the overall effectiveness of employee-customer encounters. The authors provide no explicit description for how the score is calculated.  The units of measure are not defined.  This “measure of employee-customer encounter effectiveness” doesn’t appear to be based on any information actually derived at the point of these encounters.  It seems like a simple bending of the customers’ stated levels of engagement and employees’ stated levels of engagement.  One can’t help but assume that the point of this book is to make the case for hiring Gallup to do this measurement, since they clearly didn’t intend to enable readers to do it themselves.

On a positive note, the authors make several strong points:

  • Many companies appear to operate based on a risk adverse philosophy that can be described as “Just Don’t Suck.” Many companies think if they deliver an adequate, industry par experience they’re entitled to their “fair share” of the market.
  • Scripting employee behavior doesn’t improve the customer experience. You need to define the outcomes you intend to produce for customers and then allow employees some flexibility in how they get to those outcomes.
  • There is a critical distinction between customers that are rationally satisfied and customers that are emotionally satisfied. Customers that are highly emotionally satisfied deliver the greatest value to the company while customers that are highly rationally satisfied often do not behave any different than dissatisfied customers.
  • For customer or employee experiences, “feelings are facts.” How the people perceive and feel about their experience are the most critical facts, not the objective measures of service levels.
  • There are four levels of emotional attachment that people have towards a company:
    • Confidence.  “A name I can trust; always delivers on their promises”
    • Integrity.  “They resolve problems and treat me fairly.”
    • Pride.  “They treat me with respect and I’m proud to be associated with them.”
    • Passion.  “I can’t imagine a world without them; the perfect company for people like me.”

Overall, I’m glad that this critical topic is beginning to get the attention it deserves.  I’d love to hear other reactions to the book or the points I raised above.