Two trends defined organizational success over the past 20 years. Exploring them sets the stage for why Employee Success is what’s next.
The Boldr experience reminded me of two other moments in my career where I found myself at the intersection of the way work had been done historically, with direct ownership and pressure to grow an organization operating against an entirely new set of rules.
New rules were being driven by our customers. Our prospects. By the markets. New rules meant new demands and entirely new sets of expectations. These new rules were intensely disruptive.
Disruption isn’t inherently destructive or constructive, though. How you respond to disruption is what dictates where you arrive. Optimistically, the best responses to the most material disruptions end up redefining who wins and loses by redefining what it means to win and lose. Disruptions are responsible for new rules. You’re responsible for how you respond.
Twice in my 25 year career I’ve felt this disruption first-hand.
- First, when I joined Prudential Financial’s eBusiness Development Group, I was tasked with helping the Securities Division acquire new customers with an emphasis on the web in collaboration with thousands of Financial Advisors around the country. It was a nascent industry and lever, and as a result, we were focused on reaching as many people as possible with Prudential’s message and finding ways for them to engage. This was an extraordinary experience, but as everyone caught up with the ability to reach customers, saturation became a problem, and the rules changed.
- Second, as my role shifted from project-based work to more strategic work, I felt the pain of reach-based strategies first-hand. Growth channels were saturating and slowing down. Just reaching people wasn’t good enough. The quality of that reach and of their overall experience was emerging as the critical next step for commercial success. We are in this phase now, but you can see Customer Experience shifting from emergent to necessary.
Both experiences share similarities with our current environment. The arc and curve of each, moving from an emergent to a necessary way of succeeding in the market, seem to forecast the experience we’re all about to face with Employee Success. Let’s dive in before looking ahead (or you can skip the background and go straight to the thesis).
Reaching People with your Message. Everywhere.
My first job in “tech” was in 2000. I joined Prudential Financial’s eBusiness Development Group which was tasked with bringing first Prudential Securities, and then all of Prudential online in a deliberate and (then) modern way. It was an exceptional time to be at a company with broad resources and commitment to finding its way on the web. I was learning at the same time the world was learning. Some of the projects I spearheaded:
- We were among the first to send people documents electronically instead of physically
- We were among the first to give people customizable, personalized homepages in their accounts
- We were among the first to launch cross-selling partnerships (bringing deals with companies like Money Magazine, Dow Jones, and Barnes & Noble to our clients and employees).
- We were among the first to understand the power of purchase data to guide product decisions – at one point I scheduled a meeting with executives at Prudential Securities to talk about credit card purchase data and how we could use it to better improve everything from product experience to offers we made to our customers. We talked about it, freaked ourselves out because of the potential and also because of what it would mean for privacy and personal data. We did nothing and moved on. Imagine that privacy discussion today?
One of my most powerful experiences was being tasked with building an end-to-end lead generation system. That’s right, in 2000, before Salesforce, before Marketo, before HubSpot, before any of those things were even ideas, I led a project at Prudential Financial that did the following:
- Launched digital ads of all formats, shapes and sizes through direct and network buys around the web
- Stuffed those ads with offers (1 year free of the Wall Street Journal, 6 months free of Money Magazine)
- Drove people to a landing page where we captured source information for ad attribution and asked people to provide information on themselves, their net worth, and their desired investable assets
- Automatically captured those leads and via geographic matching, routed those leads to Financial Advisors at Prudential who could follow-up nearly instantly
Our system was so fascinating, I’m also most proud of how we applied it next: we ran the first affinity marketing campaign connecting members of the LGBTQ+ community of investors, to LGBTQ+ Financial Advisors. Nothing filled me with more pride. Nothing showed me the power and potential of the web more.
That experience is still relevant to me today. The fundamental principles of this experience are still relevant. Tactics and strategies have changed (Do you use content instead of ads? Do you match based on affinity or responsiveness of the prospects interest instead of geography? How much do you make people fill out and enter?) but the framework still guides me.
The next 10-12 years would be an explosion and extrapolation of that experience. Automation, scale, reach defined the naughts and every company who was worth their salt focused heavily on bringing, delivering, getting their message in front of as many people as possible. As new channels emerged (social media for example) companies leaned in harder and faster. In advertising, I didn’t start hearing much about the concept of “frequency caps” (how many times someone sees your ad) until early-to-mid teens.
For 10-12 years, being successful meant you had found the means to reach people. And that was good enough to drive commercial growth and success. Until it wasn’t.
When Reach Hit its Limit, Customer Experience Became the Next Imperative
As everyone saturated the market with ads, emails, search, and as people started getting bombarded with messages everywhere, mindsets shifted and blindness to marketing reach became a real problem. The ability to market to and reach people no longer became how you differentiated – it became a prerequisite for participation and survival in the market. You needed to be good at reaching people or you and your offering were Dead On Arrival.
Reach stopped you from dying out, but reach did not help you grow and thrive.
With reach as a new baseline expectation, differentiation was driven by the manner and context in which you engaged with them. For most of the last 10 years, differentiation was driven by The Customer Experience making it the new frontier upon which companies would win and lose, markets would rise and fall.
I felt this first-hand as well. I worked at a digital agency and saw the rise in value and stature of user interface designers, user experience strategists, and creative directors. I was lucky enough to be at the forefront of Customer Service as it shifted from a cost center to a critical aspect of customer lifetime value, differentiation, and very practically, business growth and expansion. I was lucky enough to be an early adopter of Customer Success strategies and tools, shifting to these while other companies were still trying to make sense of acquisition heavy strategies.
The CX umbrella bloomed from single seeds into an all consuming rainforest, with an incredible canopy rising above more traditional, legacy and even dying disciplines, or ways of framing those disciplines. Every major functional discipline required an Experience mindset, and most started taking a backseat to CX in the public consciousness – what’s a dirtier word these days, Marketing or Sales?
If you’re running an organization today though, you’re likely starting to feel about CX the way many felt about functional reach a decade ago – it’s essential, but it’s getting harder to keep up, to differentiate, and ultimately, to sustain that differentiation.
Customer Experience still matters; a good Customer Experience though, is now seamless. Compare the delight when one feels with an excellent Customer Experience (it’s seamless, almost expected) with the frustration one feels with a bad Customer Experience (disruptive, frustrating). It’s telling. And it’s perhaps the greatest evidence of Customer Experience shifting from an emergent frontier upon which organizations win (or lose) to a necessary expertise customers expect of the organizations they interact with.
What tilts the scales for me is how quickly individual, specifically designed experiences are now quickly replicated. Software or hardware, digital or physical, look or feel. If you create something wonderful – a product, an interaction, a style – people will embrace it and adopt it faster than ever before. Replication, iteration and evolution cycles on the experience side are faster and faster.
Which brings me back to the importance of people.
The functional, in-market priorities we’ve pursued time and time again have followed the same arc – new innovations, new ideas, new strategies, have emerged as critical and essential for differentiation only to be relegated to necessary and fundamental for participation. The great ideas of yesterday become commodities.
Employee Success is Next.
It’s also Sustainable and Future Proof.
What insulates us against the commoditization of strategies is an investment in the creation and exploration of ideas. Those ideas come from people. The better their working environment, the more engaged the people, the more sustainable and ongoing those ideas become.
That’s where we’re dropping the ball.
As we watch the Great Reckoning take shape and tear through our organizations, I can’t help but feel like I’ve been here before.
I was here in 2000 when I was being lectured by Senior Executives at Prudential telling me the web would never have a place with High Net Worth, even Mass Affluent investors (eTrade, Schwab, all were going to die the moment the market spooked).
I was here in 2014, when CEOs and investors alike were telling me to focus heavily on acquisition while I, on the frontlines, was seeing how saturated the markets were and how much opportunity we actually had if we were to remain focused on making the clients we did have, more successful with their investments.
I’m watching first-hand today as regardless of headlines, resignation rates, unfilled job counts, employee NPS and engagement scores – most companies are downplaying employee apathy and disengagement if they’re paying attention to it at all.