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The Ethnography of Experience

The HR Roots of Customer Experience

Where does customer experience live? For those who are CX professionals, they would like it to live in the hearts and minds of all workers in an organization. But, where in an organization does it live? And why does that matter? More specifically, what role does human resources play in customer experience?

This was the topic of conversation at our most recent CX Frontiers, sponsored by Insperity in Waltham, MA.

Employee Lifecycle (

Employee Lifecycle (

Not surprisingly, when you get a bunch of human resources people together, the conversation is going to go to working conditions and employee engagement. There are many reasons to put employees as your first point of consideration. One important reason is that, in today’s economy, good employees can be hard to find and even harder to keep. A common reality companies now face is having to support the full employee lifecycle (ELC). Employees can routinely get calls from headhunters and recruiters, thus requiring HR to fend off offers in order to retain their best. But that point might be too late. To keep the best people, and keep your customer experience where you it should, you need to start at the very beginning of the lifecycle.

Here’s the key point: to keep people, you have to think of them as your internal customers. Like with other kinds of customers, some are more important to your business than others. Best intentions are met with limited resources. You can’t save everyone, and thus decisions have to be made. To whom are resources going to be directed, and to what extent.

Mm mm. That’s good eatin’

Mm mm. That’s good eatin’

But what about those that resources are not going to be directed? Resources are only one part of the employee experience. A much larger, and perhaps more important piece, is the company culture. High paychecks may keep employees in their seats, but they are not by themselves going to create a customer-centric company. As one attendee said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It is at this point that HR has the most vital role to play in customer experience: establishing an employee-centric culture. To get to customer centricity you first have to move through employee centricity. Thus, it may not matter as much whether CX resides as part of marketing, or sales, or even in its own functional space. What matters is the extent to which it is seen as an extension of HR efforts to establish a culture of employee experience.

As many in the workshop noted, creating an experience of purpose and meaning is becoming more essential for millennials. Sarah Landrum, writing for Forbes, states the following:

The simpler way to put this is millennials want their workplaces and the people there to function as a kind of second family. They want that company to have an easily graspable and pro-social set of values. They want opportunities to broaden their usefulness to your company, and they want you to help them give back to the community. Again, one would have to squint really hard to get a sense of “entitlement” from any of this — it’s simply what millennials want from business now that business rules the world.

At the same time, it is not like previous generations sought out meaningless work. In fact, all generation want meaningful work. How they define what is meaningful, and how they perceive other generations (hint: as money grubbing and not motivated by a higher calling) is what is different.

For HR, this means that creating a culture of engaged and enhanced experiences becomes a primary goal. What this means in practice can more tricky to define. Our attendees came up with the following list of features: 1) a culture of trust; 2) work/life balance; 3) open communication and transparency; 4) creating social connections. Broken down, we can see the ability to form relations with the organizations, with our families, our co-workers, and as a result with our customers. A few practical ideas were shared, including forming of self-organized interest groups and social circles at work, organizing small lunch trips for people in cross-functional spaces who otherwise would likely never meet, workplace shadowing, and off-site community engagement activities.

Some cute innovations incubating.

Some cute innovations incubating.

While this may not be new, the question could be asked, “Why are more companies not doing it?” Or, what is it about the workplace itself that seems to get in its own way? Part of the problem might lie in seeing organization leads as “managers” versus “facilitators.” To “manage” means to exert some level of control. To “facilitate” means to give that control up at some point. Facilitation is about re-empowering people to make decisions, to have agency over their work, to allow them to see themselves in what they do, and to put their own stamp on their tasks. As organizations get bigger, this can be an increasingly scary proposition. How do we maintain quality control over non-standardized activities? Perhaps this is why we can see smaller companies as experience incubators, where chances are taken because of the trust that exists in other workers. Then again, if you want employees and customers to trust your company, you need to trust them. Trust is a social system built on reciprocity. You get trust by giving it, and by demonstrating you are trustworthy.

In the end, all of our attendees saw experience design for an organization as starting with HR. Perhaps rather than calling it “human resources”, it should be called the “Office for Employee Experiences” (or insert your pithier name here). Perhaps CEOs should cease being Chief Executive Officers, and start being Chief Experience Officers. After all, it comes down to the realities we face, the perceptions that are created, and the experiences that we have. Companies might be successful in spite of failing in these areas, but they are going to have a harder time doing it, and ultimately their employee customers are going to start shopping somewhere else.