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The question is as old as business itself: How do we differentiate our organization from the rest? The answer may lie in understanding and empowering a new class of workers.
I had an interesting experience several months ago at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
As I looked out at all the amazing new devices and technologies on display, I couldn’t help but sense a sameness to many of them. In a fast-moving industry like electronics, a company’s product idea or enhancement is quickly copied by others.
That holds true for many industries, in fact. Whether it’s a product or service, new ideas and innovations spread like wildfire. Automakers routinely incorporate each other’s designs and technologies. Airlines copy each other’s frequent flier programs. Investment products are noticeably similar across companies.
I began thinking about how organizations can compete effectively when their offerings are so easily replicated. How do they set themselves apart from the pack?
The solution, to me, lies in the quality of their workers.
I know it’s a cliché. Every organization says “Our employees are what make us special.” So I’ll qualify it with this: one group of employees in particular.
Behold the Interaction Worker
The differentiating factor for organizations today is our “interaction workers” – those employees who have an outsized impact on the success of our organizations. To give credit where it’s due, McKinsey & Company introduced the term 20 years ago when it identified and began studying this class of employee.
Interaction workers are knowledge workers whose jobs are highly complex, requiring them to make decisions – often quickly – based on deep knowledge, judgment, instinct, and experience. Their tasks are non-routine and not guided by an instruction manual or rule book. To be effective, they work closely with other employees, prospects, customers, clients, and suppliers, often through phone conversations, problem solving, reporting, conferences and the like.
You’ll find interaction workers throughout your organization. They’re the marketing managers, executives, sales professionals, customer service representatives, and others whose work sets your organization apart and provides a vital competitive advantage.
Their skill level and the difficulty replacing them make them different from other types of workers. These include transactional workers, who perform routine knowledge work, such as clerical duties, accounting, IT, auditing, and more, and transformational workers, who perform the mostly manual work of transforming raw materials into finished goods. The latter two types of knowledge workers are ones that companies have spent the past two decades eliminating by streamlining processes, automating routine activities and outsourcing.
These Employees DO Make You Special!
Interaction workers are vital to our organizations because they bring a uniquely human element to their work. Their jobs can’t easily be copied or replicated, outsourced or automated. You can’t automate the brains behind a well-thought-out marketing campaign, copy the go-the-extra-mile efforts of a great customer service representative, or replicate the timing of a perfectly executed financial transaction.
These workers are true value creators for our organizations – both in the financial and intangible sense. They are the ones who attract customers, generate new product ideas, solve problems, and keep customers satisfied – all of which are activities that competitors should struggle to emulate.
Like it or not, we live in an age in which products and services are rapidly imitated and commoditized. The best way to differentiate ourselves is by identifying, understanding, and appreciating our interaction workers, empowering them and bringing more into our organizations.