5 ways to bridge the engagement gap


In Part 1 we listed the issues plaguing and undermining the engagement landscape.

Now as promised, here are some practical suggestions for addressing these problems, all, as ever, based on recent client experience:

1. Measure what you treasure: We’ve criticised the measurement industry which has grown up around employee engagement, largely on the grounds that the processes are all too often too cumbersome and there’s far too great a lag between recognition of the problem and action. When directors are obsessed with quarterly reporting and expect to move on every couple of years, what’s the use of a bi-annual staff survey?

 We’ve also spoken in the past however, about the need for some form of measurement to win round the left-brained, data-worshipping cynics and to create a stake in the ground from which improvement can be tracked.

It’s far better however, to ask a few powerful questions and take swift action to address the issues highlighted. It sends out a signal that the leaders care, especially if they can see swift results. After all, there’s usually time to dig deeper at a later stage and to involve more people in that process.

2. Pull together a brand coalition: Sustainable brands are built on sustainable stakeholder involvement inside and out and side to side. Constructing and maintaining a united and consistent picture of the business is very important if the business is to back up the promises made about the brand. This can’t happen in isolation, however, and needs at least HR; Marketing and Comms working in concert to address the process and behavioural challenges.

3. Think beehive, think culture: I can’t think of a board room where “the way we do things” isn’t tabled daily. Yet so few attempt to clarify what that means in practice, usually fearing the consequences of shaking the beehive. Organisations are the sum of the behaviour of the people who work for them. You can’t engage people unless you understand them. Involvement is key to engagement, so find a way to understand the current norms and then work with the decision makers to create a compelling picture of the culture required to deliver the goals, strategy and vision and an engagement programme to bring it to life, role modelling that desired culture as you go. If in doubt, ask a trusted advisor to lend a hand in shaping and facilitating the journey.

4. Lead by example: It’s tough at the top. But that’s what you’re paid for. Remember how you used to look to your leaders for cues about how to behave, and how not to? That never changes. Yes, organisations have had to adapt to prevailing social norms and become more democratic and affiliative in leadership style. So-called social media and the communication revolution is going to ensure that this trend continues. The modern manager simply has to lad by example if they’re to sustain a career within a sustainable business. Values-based leadership is a powerful development strategy, as is mentoring and hugely cost-effective. These are tough times but how are leadership development budgets or even personal development budgets being spent where you work? And what’s the opportunity cost of a disengaged workforce?

5. Appreciative comms:  Last but not least, conscripted armies of favourites don’t build sustainable brands. Cynics don’t destroy them either. Brands are undermined by a million small cuts; insidiousness and passivity leading to what I call “creeping brand death” like the spreading darkness in The Never Ending Story. The thriving brands, however, have champions everywhere in all shapes and sizes who feel connected because they believe in what they’re hearing via the internal communication channels and their values resonate with what they experience at work not what they hear the leaders saying. So be appreciative and start actively seeking out examples of best practice behaviour that exemplifies the business you want to see and celebrate it. Good news is infectious, especially in dark days.

If you would like to know more about the detail underpinning these 5 approaches which are all based upon recent case studies or would prefer a confidential chat about the engagement issues you’re facing, please contact Ian. 


Diversity is a key driver of engagement not a “nice to have”


WASP males don’t tend to get too many invitations to be involved in the promotion of diversity management; which is more than a little short sighted.  I’m a firm believer in the notion that the promotion of diversity should embrace the full range of stakeholders and should truly practice inclusiveness in the way stakeholders are engaged with the philosophy or it runs the risk of being seen as a marginal activity aimed at an exclusive audience.  Within businesses, this means adapting the language used to promote diversity from the usual hearts, flowers and equality stuff to appeal to left brain and bottom line thinkers. It needs to empower and celebrate uniqueness not reinforce difference. As with the CSR and sustainability agenda, this can be done, as it makes damn good business sense. But a “push” communication approach may be one of the reasons why the diversity flag bearers within organisations sometimes find themselves struggling for real influence at the top table.

This thought piece isn’t intended to critique the notion of diversity or challenge its increasing relevance to the organisation development and employee engagement agenda within challenger brands in particular. It’s intended to promote the diversity cause and to that end, I would like to share a rare moment of Belgian enlightenment.

Picture the scene.  The wonderful and irrepressibly inspirational Myrtha Casanova of the The European Institute for Managing Diversity had enlisted my help to co-facilitate a workshop she was running with the senior executives of a global producer of cereal crops and foodstuffs.  They had been embroiled in a PR war with NGOs and pressure groups worldwide because of controversial growing techniques and what was perceived as an arrogant communication stance which was adversely affecting brand perceptions and most importantly hitting them where it hurt, on the balance sheet.

The workshops were intended to develop diversity strategies across their global businesses come what may.  Most of their senior executives were gathered in Belgium to that end – and they weren’t very pleased about it.

It was soon clear that their beleaguered HR Director had been forced into developing a diversity strategy by the board who were in turn responding to US legislation.  The executive cadre encamped in Belgium were 90% male, mostly of Anglo-Saxon origin and frankly, felt they had much more pressing priorities.  In short, the workshops quickly regressed into trench warfare.

The turning point came, however, shortly after lunch on day one when, rather than push more and more statistics, facts and process at the group, we adopted a less evangelical approach and asked them to explore their brand from the customer’s perspective.

They had traditionally seen themselves as a business to business organisation but it took one of the more junior managers, who also happened to have the largest team and who also happened to be a woman, to point out that housewives could make or break their brand.  By drawing a simple supply chain model she was able to quickly illustrate the route their primary product ultimately followed to market and how it was immaterial that they weren’t putting the bread on the shelves themselves. Women still make the vast majority of purchasing decisions per household and the retailers were reliant upon their suppliers to provide raw materials in tune with the ethics and values of the consumer.  An epiphany!

This simple, jaw-dropping moment proves to be a revelation for her cynical peers who had clearly spent years developing competencies and promoting values appropriate for managing their equally macho purchasing managers in the businesses they were selling to.  Suddenly the link between organisational culture, brand and their PR problems was put into stark relief. More importantly, they realised that, without a more representative management structure they would make similar mistakes.  The business case for diversity had become clear and the rest of the session was put to productive use developing a central and local diversity policy, strategy and engagement approach which owed much to a loaf of bread!

Clearly diversity is about much more than gender as the superhuman events of the forthcoming Paralympics will doubtless show. The development and cultivation of a culture in which people are valued for the unique qualities they bring to work is in everyone’s best interests, not least the customers’ and consultation, involvement and inclusiveness should be the cornerstones upon which to build an engagement strategy.

If you want to find out more about the EIMD (a not for profit organisation founded in 1996, with headquarters in Barcelona and which operates across the European Union), take a look at their website or feel free to drop us a line and we’ll tell you more about this and similar stories.

Let’s get physical 2: It’s all about culture


Part 2: It’s all about culture

Organisation culture put simply is “the way we do things”. The physical aspect of the internal culture or the “space in which we do things” is hugely important and often under-rated as, whether inadvertently, or by design, it signifies what’s important. It certainly needs to be factored into any customer brand engagement programme and is just as important to an employee engagement drive. 

Consider how all the talk about openness is undone by a closed office door; respect is undermined by unfair parking privileges or unjustifiably different standards of office furniture or an inappropriate front of house setup.

As odd as it may sound, we recently worked with a not for profit, disability focused charity where the desk in reception was too high for wheelchair users and the offices resembled a 1970s sit-com. Pretty tricky changing the logo on the outside in pursuit of a brand refresh and change agenda when the illusion was shattered as soon as employees and customers crossed the threshold.

We often fail to appreciate the importance of the physical, the visual, the use of space, colour and shapes in corporate communication. Yes, it’s a cliché that a picture paints 1000 words, yet we often persist in using words devoid from their context. All the executive speeches and even podcasts in the world couldn’t compensate for the interactive brand walk-through experience we co-created for the employees of a global insurance company. Better still, consider the impact it had when we took the brand walk-through experience to the people rather than the people to the exhibit when we mounted it aboard a touring flat back truck.

The real breakthrough in developing, launching and embedding a service and brand engagement programme for a major health and wellbeing organisation came when we recently threw away the slides and rooted the champions training in the physical space.

Given the fact that the brand strategy involved offering a complete healthcare solution delivered through relationships rather than products, an off-the-shelf service training approach would have been counter-productive. Instead, we worked with a panel of champions and designed an ideal centre layout in 3d and, working with the centre teams  tracked the respective journeys of different client types throughout the workshops. By grounding the service standards in the environment for which they were designed rather than drowning people in theory, the champions were able to raise and tackle very real situations and scenarios and share best practices with each other that they could apply straight away, giving the whole programme a much more practical feel. This was especially important as the participants were active folk who spend their working lives leading by physical example. It was also an opportunity to explore the whole customer experience and the roles and responsibilities of the employees to maintain service standards whether the customer touch point was online, in-store or on the telephone.

Traditional retailers spend years in the equivalent of customer-service “labs” trying to understand and dissect in-store customer journeys – shoppers’ missions, mindsets, behaviours and ultimately their path to purchase. But there’s no longer much time for navel gazing and scenario planning. Different customer journeys are now taking place simultaneously across channels and technologies. It calls for a more enlightened, involving, innovative, open-eared, empathic and customer-focused approach to listening. It also means that the way retailers do things, on and off-line matters as much as the goods they offer. Brand managers would do well to heed those words.

In part 3 – The Future…..

Authors: Ian P Buckingham in conjunction with Chris Hill & David Martin of retail design experts M Worldwide. (Published online in 3 serialised parts & also appeared in specialist marketing magazine Admap M-Worldwide_Admap_ShoppingAsArtForm_1Nov12).

Mind the engagement gap…


The 10 degrees of separation: Part 1

A day seldom passes without more doom and gloom about employee engagement levels worldwide.

The story is usually the same – workplace democratisation yet declining levels of trust in leadership. Technologies driving faster personal communication and so-called social media yet dramatic falls in face time. But the same critics point out that, in the face of the worst ever economic slump, lowering productivity and even lower morale, engagement is vital for innovation, customer service, health and well-being.

At the turn of last year, we brainstormed the root causes of disengagement based on what we’d witnessed recently and found that many organisations are struggling with major issues of separation. These issues of separation are manifesting themselves in ways we’re sure you’ll recognise:

1. Separate messages and message makers with their own agendas. This can be at operational/country/brand level and will be exacerbated in merger and re-structuring and other change scenarios

2. Separate functional departments (often silos) competing for who owns the brand and the communication radio station, who are not operating to a unified vision and not using a complementary set of tools to integrate messages and media in the best interests of building brand value

3. Separate stories pasted together in an attempt to present a unified culture but often delivered in a journalistic fashion. They aren’t embedded anywhere, no-one is managing the overall narrative nor is it an involving process. It reeks of what Ed Robertson of Fedex used to call SOS or “send out stuff”

4. Separate employee and/or customer service programmes creating temporary engagement spikes or patching over business issues but often dragging morale lower once the smoke has cleared.

5. Separate channels and processes such as intranets or podcasts or eLearning for training

6. Separate and broken/outdated tools for “top-down” briefing and “bottom-up” on-going feedback like Team Briefing while technology solutions like Sharepoint and Facebook are meant to plug the side-to-side gap but are usually viewed as a threat by senior management

7. Separate research exercises occurring as annual or bi-annual disruptive and provocative events. The outcomes are seldom timely and line managers struggle to know what to do without a strategy that engages them first and foremost.

8. Separate styles of leadership/management where values and culture development is seldom at the fore and mentoring skills are seen as distinct from the core competencies. They are also seen as the preserve of separate departments and not owned by the line.

9. Separate communities inside and out where internal activities are carried out in splendid isolation and not joined up under one brand with one vision and voice. Corporate Responsibility often falls victim to this.

10. Separate perceptions about the nature and importance of employee engagement leading to a confusion about strategy, solutions and approaches.

Any of this sound familiar?

Well, despite the chatter, it’s not entirely doom and gloom everywhere. We know from past and very recent experience that the first step towards addressing the engagement gap is to start by practising what you preach and facilitating a collaboration between the brand trilogy.

But more about that when we return with Part 2……

Let’s get physical – the critical importance of space and place to brand engagement


 Part 1: The emergence of online retailing and the prevailing importance of engaged employees

One of the lines most frequently quoted from Ian’s first book, Brand Engagement is the bold assertion that “ brands are 20% physical and 80% behavioural” implying that HR, Comms and Marketing departments really should collaborate more . This is usually accompanied by the ironic news that the reverse ratio applies to brand development budget allocation, with Marketing departments commanding a lot more than the lion’s share of brand spend.

Regardless of whether you’re a designer or a behaviouralist; a communications specialist or so-called social media junkie, there is a very clear relationship between the physical environment and employee and customer behaviour. The impact the operating as well as shopping environment has on the ability of the brands to deliver on the range of promises made to customers and important stakeholders is often under-estimated.

Take the retail shopping experience for example. Store environments are probably the spaces we’re all most familiar with, where the various manifestations of the physical brand deliberately stimulate certain emotions, responses and decisions from consumers. So with retail shopping online increasing exponentially, bringing a brand to life in a comparatively expensive “in store” context is increasingly under the microscope to deliver and make a difference.

In basic terms the internet has polarised retail and the reasons for visiting and spending time in store vs. going online. For years traditional bricks and mortar retailers have talked about creating ‘experience’ and ‘theatre’ in store. Some of them have also grasped the importance of at least paying attention to the way their employees experience the brand. Now with commodity and price the territory of online retailers the physical experience needs to be re-envisioned and often re-engineered both in the shop window and on the shop floor.

But fighting the corner for face time vs facebook and the www for a moment, what does the physical store brand experience deliver for customers that the internet can’t? Well, try these for starters: instant gratification, impulse, spur of the moment, peer comparison and interaction – all need states that have driven purchase behaviour since the year dot. In addition, the physical interaction is clearly a face-to-face opportunity for brand champions to shine at the front end rather than design end of a process.

Even online same day delivery can’t deliver in the same way (delays aside) as the retailer effectively delegates a large proportion of the purchasing experience to a third-party supplier, the delivery company. And let’s face it, delivery times and taking time off work to wait in are just not that convenient.

As we all know if you’re somehow enticed into a shop, you can usually get your hands on the things there and then and have at least the opportunity for a more enriching shopping experience. It’s very hard to achieve the ‘retail therapy’ experience online in terms of total immersion of the brand and its products. There’s nothing like being in a physical environment to satisfy the basic human need to be in places with other people who ideally inform; advise and (when they’re doing their job well), provide valuable information and feedback. All the “reviews” in the world can’t replicate that.

Lest we forget, it was said at one time that talkies and then video and DVD in turn would sound the death knell of the cinema. What actually happened was that movie houses were forced to do a better job in fulfilling the large screen experience: reclining seats, proper food and drinks served at your seat, leading technology in comfortable and contemporary surroundings. Cinema theatres are arguably no longer the film business but the popcorn selling business. And just as cinemas attract customers through screening movies that tell stories, shops sell their own brand of dreams and in the process showcase and retail products and services like scenes from the story of that brand. But in an age of constantly changing communication media and lifestyles the context and way that the retail experience is delivered has to be constantly rethought. Neurosis for some, excitement for others as even the most well-known brands are constantly challenged to adapt and embrace change.

In early 2012, for example, even the online retail giant Amazon, which was supposed to permanently upstage store-based shopping, announced plans to open its first physical retail store in Seattle, selling tablets and e-readers. Its aim? To provide customers with a hands-on experience of its products in the context of a fully branded experience facilitated by employees who are advocates and champions of the brand. Sound familiar?

Buying certain products and services requires big decisions and will always involve road-testing or a more personal and expert, even reassuring touch prior to purchase. It’s a brave cyclist, for example, who buys a new road bike without actually sitting on it and taking it for a test ride. It’s a foolhardy patient who purchases meds online without some form of professional consultation. And what about the anxious first time parents in need of expert advice when buying buggy, cot or car seat?

Most people still look to a small group of people for advice and reassurance – friends and peers, family, doctors and sometimes trusted sales advisors. We’re seeing a new generation of umbrella brands that act as impartial advisors enabling other brands to coexist in one space – a kind of fragmented department store model projecting a clear set of values and which offers edited choice and more reasons to visit and engage.

Lloyds Pharmacy is currently testing a concept in two UK locations that may very well revolutionise health and wellbeing – the Health Village. Teaming up with aligned brand partners such as Betterlife, Connect Physical Health, Hidden Hearing, Shuropody, Skin and Vision Express, these are the UK’s first retail health centres that offer a wide range of healthcare services under one roof. They also offer the Lloyds Pharmacy Online Doctor service, an innovative and discreet in-store online service. With healthcare needs of local communities increasingly changing and people no longer passive about it, Lloyds Pharmacy’s community based philosophy, combined with the expertise and reassurance of its partners, is the perfect way to offer personalised, convenient healthcare services. It’s a really smart move, and by bringing in brand partners, newness and content are much easier to generate.

But there’s little point corralling a set of brands under one brand umbrella, however aligned they may be on paper, unless the employees can role model the approach in their everyday interactions with customers. Whether online or face to face, at the core of the brand proposition are people and they have a choice about how they interact with each other and with customers. Add up those exercised choices and you have the culture of the brand whether manifest online or in person.

Part 2: It’s all about culture follows next week…….

Authors: Ian P Buckingham in conjunction with Chris Hill & David Martin of retail design experts M Worldwide. (Published online in 3 serialised parts & also appeared in specialist marketing magazine Admap M-Worldwide_Admap_ShoppingAsArtForm_1Nov12).

Re-claim the “c” word! How critical conversations build brands.


Out-takes from the networking breakfast with Professor David Clutterbuck and executives from leading brands, facilitated by Ian Buckingham.

They exaggerate those marketers do. Brand building is clearly less about the colourful and shiny stuff and more about cultivating the behaviour you need to keep the promises made by the business. This means understanding what underpins that behaviour, celebrating best practices and addressing performance problems.

It also implies some form of critique.

Yet in the shadow of the nanny state that spawned the non-competitive school sports day, criticism somehow became a dirty word. It’s still usually accompanied by raised eyebrows and notes raised on personnel files if uttered in a corporate context. But I’m pleased to say that we reclaimed the c-word at breakfast this week, when a seasoned group of senior practitioners drawn from across sectors acknowledged and celebrated the importance of real, constructive dialogue to brand building from within.

To my mind, critical has always implied balanced critique. It’s all about the motive. If intent and style are clearly positive, critical conversations can be well-rounded encounters of huge importance. Clearly, however, culture and context are key.

It’s no surprise that the enquiries into the collapse of many high-profile financial services brands are belatedly highlighting the effect that command and control norms had on entire executive teams, blinkering their leaders and leading to some devastating decisions with catastrophic consequences not only for the brands themselves but global communities.

David Clutterbuck has spent 40 years or so studying and striving to improve the quality of conversations and dialogue within organisations. He has written over 50 books in that time (!) and has another on the way. During his talk he shared many examples of the impact of re-wiring the norms of dialogue that become ingrained within corporate culture. These ranged from his work with the police and household brands like Asda through to the transformation of conversations during board meetings by building in more time for consideration and reflection; building more respectful relations by borrowing time normally spent posturing and speech-making.

David reminded the group of the difference between the transactional elements of conversations (the task) and transformational (relationship development) and the impact that remote working and time-poor decision-making can have.

He shared 7 types of transformational conversation and 5 levels of  all-important listening in a way that was easily accessible and actionable. But perhaps most importantly for the assembled group of senior executives, he emphasised the vital role of internal change agents who, through a mixture of leading by example and influence, were in roles where a large proportion of the power to transform the communication culture from within rested with them.

During the discussion David encouraged the HR and communication functions in particular to cultivate a suite of “bloody awkward questions” in order to overcome some of the barriers to more powerful dialogue. He also called for these functions to cultivate cultures in which 4 core conversations happen daily:

  •  “Who am I, what do I stand for and where am I going”? Some would call this a personal branding conversation within the head of the employee and largely reserved for conversations with trusted advisors/ their mentor.
  • “What are my intentions with regard to my current role and this organisation”, a more fulfilling conversation with their immediate line manager and peers.
  • “What’s working, what isn’t & what can we improve” between the organisation and its talent base generally.
  • General conversations on the social networks of the employees themselves from which the organisation can learn and evolve. This is the polar opposite to the strategy of policing social media adopted by some high-profile brands.

It was broadly acknowledged that the role of the internal change agent is on the one hand helped by access to information and first-person experience of “the way we do things”. But on the other hand, it’s not always easy to remain objective about what needs to change and even more difficult to influence the most senior of stakeholders who appear to wield the most significant impact, especially when your salary is at stake.

Our own conversation over croissants centred on the growing importance of mentoring and coaching as one way of helping internal executive change agents transform the quality of dialogue and in turn culture from within even if it has to be one conversation at a time. It was acknowledged that not only does this enable access to external support and expertise in a less intrusive way than a consultancy intervention, but it is a highly effective way of developing networks of skilled champions committed to the communication cause.

At breakfast this time we were joined by clients and contacts from 10 different organisations ranging from Bonhams through to Virgin. The beauty is always in the blend and it’s impossible to do justice to the quality of the discussion in this format without the attempt undermining the intent. Hopefully however, this provides a flavour of what was, in the words of one of our guests: “A great session & an inspired discussion in an excellent environment. I really enjoyed myself and left with loads of ideas and plans.”

If you’re interested in hearing more about this breakfast session; would like more information about ways to promote more effective dialogue where you work or would like to join a future breakfast club session yourself, then do get in touch.

We will be holding a series of workshops and drop-in sessions on similar themes throughout 2012, so watch this space.