With so much focus on customers, companies can lose sight of their most valued asset—their people—and the critical roles they play in the success of their organizations.  Organizations are the employees, and customer service and quality are dependent on these skilled, motivated people.

Employees should be considered assets, not expenses. Assets are something to invest in. One indisputable fact is that frontline workers, who interact daily with customers, know customers best. They’re the most familiar with the processes in place and have ideas about how to improve them. Unfortunately, managers have been trained to think they are supposed to know all the answers. Surprise, they don’t!

Continuous improvement initiatives can bring about positive changes but often do not involve rank-and-file employees. These initiatives are sometimes blamed for downsizing. Often, they are viewed as “flavor of the month” programs, creating cynics of the very people who are needed to embrace new and better ways to work and provide service to customers.

Many organizations have missed the point. Some act as if they can treat employees badly (especially when the sluggish economy prevents them from going elsewhere), and then expect these same employees to treat external customers with world-class service. Who are these organizations kidding?

So, what can be done?  The following basic principles can serve as a reminder to treat employees as assets.

1. Be truthful.  Leveling with your employees is a good place to begin. With reduced revenues and soaring costs, something has to change. Owning up to this reality reflects strength of character. Candidness can rally the minds and hearts of employees to make them partners.

Lack of transparency and failure to state the truth is common today. There are multiple examples in the news which reflects this as true. 

2. Be trustworthy.  Integrity is the glue of an organization, and it begins and ends with trust. Trustworthiness is earned by keeping commitments. So, for example, don’t tell people that their jobs are not at risk unless you can promise them lifetime employment. An acquaintance once shared that his organization was pretty good at keeping commitments—
but they rarely made any.  

3. Engage employees. Managers must recognize that, no matter how brilliant and accomplished a leader, they can’t see the whole picture. Even if management could come up with all the right decisions, employees have to implement those changes. Create cross-organizational teams with representation from the various levels in the organization to drive change.   

People at all levels like to be included and getting their buy-in will help ensure ideas get implemented in a timely manner. Encourage frank and open dialogue with employees. Listening is a hallmark of any good manager because it encourages employees’ best thinking. Let people challenge a concept and have an opportunity to express their ideas. It’s amazing what happens when organizations cultivate and embrace ideas from their people about improving the business. This inspires ownership.

4. Communicate that improvement is everyone’s responsibility.  Make improvement part of everyone’s job description. Then provide support for implementing these improvements. Give responsibility for implementing improvements to the employees making the suggestions (this is appropriate because they want to see the change happen).  Encourage people to set objectives for improving key processes.

5. Focus on internal customers.  Not all employees interact with external customers. However, all employees are internal customers (or internal suppliers) of other employees. Train your people to identify their internal customers and determine their requirements.  Implement internal “service level agreements.” If everyone meets the requirements of their internal customers, the probability of satisfying external customers’ needs will be greatly enhanced.

Note: This is part one of a two-part series.