Chris Ford: 10 years in customer and employee engagement

close up of colleagues working on document with laptops either side

By Chris Ford, Sales Director at Blackhawk Network

This month I celebrate 10 years working in the customer and employee engagement industry. I joined Grass Roots back in January 2009 (now Blackhawk Network following the acquisition of Grass Roots in Sept 2016) and can honestly say that the changes I’ve seen in the way we now engage audiences, both employee and customer, are remarkable.
To celebrate this personal milestone, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come as an industry in the last 10 years.

The employee engagement landscape

Brands finally woke up to the fact that employees (and their fellow colleagues) are their most valuable assets
This may seem obvious now, but back in 2009 there was little evidence that fully supported the value of employee engagement - especially if that engagement required consistent investment.
I’d spend days trying to convince clients how important it was not just to employ great talent and pay them well but to engage that talent effectively. Some got it instantly and deployed engagement services that really made a difference to business performance, some recognised the requirement but chose instead to deploy a few short-term tactical engagement initiatives and others felt it was all too fluffy.
Commonly, when asked about their current employee engagement strategy, clients would question why they should invest so heavily in their benefits and rewards as their employees were already being rewarded through their salary and the reputation of the business they work for. The subject of flexible working was also something that seemed a nonsensical idea as it was believed that employees wouldn’t work at home and would be preoccupied by their personal lives. Fortunately, times have changed and organisations are now investing in their people and working with them to create a great work life balance.
We know now that employee engagement is directly related to performance 
The industry has worked hard to develop evidence that definitively proves the link between a company’s performance and the efforts they put into employee engagement, with reward, recognition, employee benefits and personal development all playing a part.  
If you take a look at the best performing brands in 2018 it’s no surprise that their NPS and C-Sat scores are also high and their employees are driving this boost in productivity. I’ve said for years - Happy Employees = Happy Customers = Happy Shareholders.
A simple Google search will reveal many compelling articles on the importance of employee wellbeing; which The National Wellness Institute identifies as encompassing physical, social, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and occupational wellbeing - all factors that companies now recognise as important to keeping employees engaged and performing at optimum levels.  

The rise of engagement platforms
Engagement platforms now drive completely automated processes that continually create relevant, personalised and timely reasons to engage. The best examples pass the ownership for recognition onto their employees and provide them with the power to continually thank and recognise great performance, including the ownership for reward based recognition. Achievers is one example of this peer to peer recognition.
Choosing the right benefits and rewards
Employee benefits have been around for years but nowadays they are almost always free for employers to implement and expertly curated to offer relevant and personalised offerings for all. Whatever your need or interest; childcare, health and fitness, the latest technology, saving money, …the list goes on and on – these and many more benefits are available for every employee, anywhere – and the best bit is they don’t cost the employer anything!
Rewards and incentives have also evolved greatly over the last ten years. They should no longer reside in an ever-growing bespoke catalogue of items. Instead each item, in its own right, should be offering maximum choice. We don’t keep a catalogue of 40,000+ items running for the clients we serve today, instead we provide absolute choice by offering rewards that by their nature provide maximum choice – prepaid cards (which can be spent anywhere), Choice products (specifically themed in categories that include dining, students, cycling, kids, spa’s etc.), branded digital codes like Hawk Select and of course a market leading range of gift-cards, vouchers and e-codes.
Take a look around our range of employee engagement products and you’ll find rewards and benefits that really do make a difference to employee engagement!

The customer engagement landscape

Next, let’s consider how the customer engagement landscape has moved on in leaps and bounds over the last ten years. The need to acquire, retain and develop customer advocacy have remained key challenges across pretty much every industry. What has changed is how companies achieve these key performance measures and goals.
Let’s start with the data
Previously, organisations had held customer records in databases but often the content was spread across several divisions in separate systems. It not only made serving customers in a joined-up fashion tough, but outbound personalised, timely and relevant engagement was almost impossible.
We all remember being bounced around a business, giving the same details every time someone new got involved. It usually went something like: “What’s your first and last name”, “What’s your account number”, “How can I help”, “Oh sorry, you’ve come through to the wrong department, let me transfer you” – triage hell!

Nowadays, our data is more consolidated providing a single customer view, meaning you should be better known by anyone you might speak to at a company regardless of how you choose to engage with them – online or offline. These issues, alongside data security and last year’s implementation of GDPR, have now become board-level considerations so we as consumers should be confident that our data is being accurately and securely stored allowing us to receive personalised and relevant engagement from the brands we prefer to use.

But, do we feel valued?

Companies often translated customer value into rewards given for using their services regularly, e.g. stay five nights and get the sixth on us, spend £100 and get 10% off your next purchase and so on. All we needed to do was sign up to the scheme, perform the desired behaviour and receive our reward.
However, the savvier brands found that value means so much more than just encouraging a specific behaviour to drive spend; they must acquire, retain and develop their customer relationships by rewarding actions that make a difference. Organisations have realised that not all of their most valuable customers are their highest spenders and that rewarding behaviour now encompasses programme registration and usage, social media commentary, referrals, reviews and much more.
Not only is it when companies choose to reward customers that has changed over the years, but the types of rewards that are given have also been upgraded. There’s been a realisation that more of the same isn’t highly valued and that providing choice to customers allows them to select a reward that is actually relevant to them. Tesco’s Clubcard loyalty programme doesn’t only allow you to use your points on additional purchases in Tesco, but instead they can be used with their vast range of reward partners with points often of a higher value. Other examples come from BT who provide a branded prepaid card to their customers (BT Reward Card) and EE who give their customers an EE Film Card to thank them for their loyalty – in neither of these cases do you see more calls, data or phone services offered as the reward!
Delivering relevancy, immediacy, value and choice without breaking the bank!
The art of customer engagement is delivering great value to every recipient and encouraging them to re-engage. In 2009, we all joined loyalty schemes that would reward us for our spending but then then it would often take 6 months to create enough value to make redeeming a reward worthwhile – this was firmly linked to the spend paradigm with brands wanting to create a good level of income from customers before providing the reward. As a result, many schemes suffered from inactivity.
Flick forward 10 years and we all expect more – the right reward, delivered at the right time and personalised to us using a totally frictionless process. 
Digital has finally taken off – people expect in the moment rewards that can be spent instantly. Choice has finally become the new norm – don’t try to second guess what people want allow, just them to choose for themselves. 3rd party content and reward value is now resonating more than ever before with companies connecting with other relevant brands in an attempt to offer the best possible reach and choice.
Without doubt, the last 10 years has seen huge changes in the employee and customer engagement market places. We have all benefited hugely from the technological revolution that has happened behind the scenes now making it possible to connect the most relevant brand with the most relevant people. Just imagine with the pace of change over the last 10 years, what will happen in the coming 10 years!