• Managing people

The Value of Staff Customer Contact

St Gallen study shows how employee customer contact, supported by transformational leadership, drives organizational performance


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Locked down and working from home during the Covid pandemic we have been powerfully reminded of the vital energy and motivation we get from everyday contact with others. The importance of this energy in the context of employee contact with customers is highlighted in research from the University of St. Gallen.

Whether contact with customers is face-to-face or by phone or by electronic media, personal interaction by staff with customers, by stimulating the human desire to help others, generates a collective energy that ultimately leads to better company performance. The St Gallen study explains how this works and empathizes the need for transformational leadership to fully secure the benefits of staff-customer contact.

The study, conducted by Prof Dr Petra Kipfelsberger, Prof Dr Heike Bruch and Prof Dr Dennis Herhausen of the University of St. Gallen, Executive School of Management, Technology and Law, which was based on data from 9,094 employees in 75 German firms in a variety of industries and sectors, investigated how and when a firm’s level of customer contact influences the collective organizational energy.

The key finding was that a firm’s level of customer contact is positively linked to the collective organizational energy because a high level of customer contact can foster a sense of positively impacting others—known to psychologists as ‘pro-social impact’—across the firm.

The study revealed three types of energy produced by the pro-social impact of staff customer contact: affective energy, such as happiness, enthusiasm and other positive feelings; cognitive energy, reflected in employees making the commitment to engage intellectually in solving problems and being innovative; and behavioural energy, working with greater speed and intensity to achieve the organization’s goal.

What is more, the pro-social impact and energy generated by customer contact, while beginning with individual employees is contagious. It can spread throughout the organization and be the catalyst that builds collective energy and elevates pro-social impact to the organizational level. Even employees who do not have direct contact with customers are drawn into the energy and motivation of those who connect with customers.

But customers can be dissatisfied and difficult and customer interaction with employees can sometimes have a negative effect, depleting employees’ energy. Here the researchers draw attention to the importance of ‘transformational leadership’—the need for leaders to inspire their teams with a compelling vision for the future, to aim for common goals and to set high-performance expectations, while giving employees absolute support. Transformational leaders can help employees refocus away from the frustration or tension of negative customer contact onto the positive contribution of their work in helping the organization achieves its goals.

Applying the research findings

The St Gallen team recommend that companies:

  1. Increase customer contact.Look for new and innovative opportunities for employees to contact customers. Avoid outsourcing—the result of outsourcing customer care is less customer contact and less organizational energy.
  2. Ensure all employees have tasks that put them in contact with customers.Customer contact is powerful because of its pro-social impact—the sense of helping others. This pro-social impact should be included in any customer-contact tasks. Even people doing back-office jobs should be encouraged to meet customers at firm events, conduct customer surveys, or do some direct customer service or sales work.
  3. Ensure a transformational leadership climate. The positive impact of customer contact and the roles leaders play in keeping employees focused on the positive should be emphasized to all managers and supervisors, and training should be offered in transformational leadership behaviours. SHARE 

Access the full research paper: The Impact of Customer Contact on Collective Human Energy in Firms. Petra Kipfelsberger, Heike Bruch & Dennis Herhausen. Group & Organization Management (October 2019)

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