Yes, you read that right. Your paying customers are actually not your most important customers. Employees are, in fact, who you should focus on most. Yet, alarmingly, 40% of employees confess they don’t completely understand their company’s vision, or they have never been exposed to it at all.* How can we expect the people who touch our customers the most, our front line, to deliver on our brand promise if they don’t know what it is or what it is supposed to feel like when it is authentically delivered?How are we supposed to engage them in delivering on a vision and customer experience they don’t understand or have never seen? How can they possibly create authentic customer experiences if we don’t arm them to do so? We have a lot of work to do to properly engage our people before we can rely on them to help us win customers for life.

Here are three ways you can help them help you:

Get on board with the fact that employees are your most important customers

Sure, they may not be your main target in terms of who is buying your products and services. And, yes, YOU are paying THEM. Minor details. The truth is that your employees are the audience for your strategy. They are the people, if treated right and armed correctly, who will authentically translate your message, your vision, and your brand to the paying customers you’re after. So you better make sure they understand it and are emotionally connected to it!

The 50,000-foot view in the latest strategy slide presentation was most likely written by someone really high level, removed from the everyday inner workings of your business, in a language that is probably as inaccessible as quantum physics to your people. You need to take all of that and translate it into a meaningful, digestible, understandable set of thoughts that employees can relate to and embrace. This can be done in many ways, but the most important thing to keep in mind is knowing your audience. Visual tools like videos and maps, as well as interactive formats like town hall meetings, games and online micro-trainings, may work well with the people you’re trying to engage.

Managers play a key role in making this happen, as they are the link between leadership and the front line. They can be most effective at bringing your vision and strategy to life in a fun, emotive way that will help your people come to their own conclusions about why it makes sense. This is the key to enabling employees to live your brand in every interaction with customers.

Begin with the WHY

It’s our nature from the very moment we can speak – asking “why?” Heck, it’s every toddler’s favorite question. Yet, when we interact with our employees (who are clearly much older and more well-versed than a toddler), we simply shovel new strategies and demands at them in lengthy slide presentations and company emails that focus on WHAT we want them to do and HOW we want them to do it. We skip right over the answer to their very first and most natural question – “WHY?”

Before asking your employees to take on something new or deliver a certain kind of customer experience, you must explain WHY it is so important. Show them why it will help themselves, the customer, and the company, and why they are so instrumental in driving the business outcome you want to achieve. Too often leaders try to engage people from the point of view of the company. Instead, we must shift our thinking to center around the point of view of the employee. How can we communicate in ways that are relevant and motivating to them? If you engage your front line the right way, the experience they deliver to customers will shine. So, start with the WHY, and then follow with the WHAT and the HOW.

Make sure your training doesn’t end up in the garbage

U.S. firms spent about $156 billion on employee learning in 2011, according to the American Society for Training and Development. But, with little practical follow-up or meaningful assessments, some 90% of new skills are lost within a year, some research suggests.** Plus, more than a quarter (26%) of employees have no training available to them, and of those that do, 62% say it’s only somewhat relevant or not applicable to their job at all.* One of the biggest mistakes companies make when developing training to build employee knowledge and skills is not identifying what they actually need to be trained on, how they best receive information, or how the program impacts the customers those employees serve.

Traditional classroom training is not the answer for front-line workers today. So, what is? Some companies attempt to find out through lengthy surveys that promise anonymity, thinking they’re going to get the truth. But what you really need to do before designing training is to go into the field and literally observe what’s happening. Go watch your people in action. Talk to them.  Hear what they have to say! Where do they excel? Where is there room to improve? How do they interact with one another? User-centered training is designed with all of this data in mind, rather than what’s on the mind of the training developer or even of company leaders. Connecting training with the company strategy and designing it with the end-user and desired outcomes in mind is the most effective way to empower people to execute your brand promise at the front line. Investing time, effort, and money into this process will yield a much more effective training development effort, more engaged employees, and much better customer interactions.

Ultimately, many leaders’ biggest shortcoming is viewing the world from their perspective and their perspective, only. The shift that’s most crucial is the one where you change the lens through which you look at the company, the employees, the strategy, and the brand. If you start by thinking about how your people might think, feel, react, respond, or behave, you will find yourself way ahead of the winning customers for life game. The customer experience will never exceed the employee experience; employees are truly your most important customers. It’s time to start treating them that way.

*America’s Workforce: A Revealing Account of What Employees Really Think About Today’s Workplace

** So Much Training, So Little to Show for It, WSJ, 26 October 2012

November 26, 2012