Joe Lineman had just left work and stopped at a local convenience store on his way home. While his truck filled with gas, he went inside to pick up a gallon of milk. “Hey, Joe,” said the man behind the counter, who had owned the store since Joe was just a kid. “I got a notice in my bill about that new round up program you guys are starting. I was thinking about participating. What do you think about it?”
“I don’t know much about it,” Joe said, a frown pulling down his face. “They don’t tell us anything around there, you know. But from what I’ve heard, I don’t like it. I’m gonna opt out.”
“Well, that’s good enough for me,” the store owner said as he gave Joe his change. That week, he opted out of the charity program — as did hundreds of other citizens who had similar conversations with employees of the utility.
What happened? Was the round up charity program a bad idea? Was there a lack of customer outreach? Were the employees bad people who didn’t want to help good causes in their community? No, no and no. To quote a classic movie, “what we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
The management team of the company in this story made the same mistake so many other companies make every day. They focused all their resources on communicating with Audience No. 2 (their customers) and forgot about Audience No. 1 (their employees).
Let me emphasize something here: Your employees are the key to the success of every program launch, every company initiative and every message your electric utility or telecommunications company hopes to impart to its customers. Here’s why every communications effort should start at home:
- Your employees are empowered by information. They work there. Many have devoted years of service to the company and the communities it serves. They want to know what plans the management team has for the utility. In more than two decades of working with electric and telecommunications companies, the top complaint we hear from employees — by far — is “we’re always the last ones to know what’s going on.” When you communicate with your employees, they become “in the know,” which gives them the power to carry the company’s mission forward.
- Your employees can be your strongest advocates. When your employees are armed with information, your utility gains an invaluable asset in communicating with its customers. Beyond the traditional methods of communicating, plus the newer digital channels, you will also have a small army of advocates who will share the good news of your program with friends, family, neighbors and anyone who asks about it.
- Your employees can be your strongest saboteurs. It’s difficult to say who has the most power: an employee armed with information or an employee armed with ignorance. If you have employees with no information interacting with your customers, the results will never be positive. Employees who don’t understand your mission and who feel left out will inevitably sabotage your efforts, whether they realize that’s what they are doing or not.
So how do you empower your employees and make sure they are advocates and not saboteurs? Here are a few tips:
- Tell them in writing. Give details of your plan or new program launch to every employee — in writing. Perhaps it’s just a single sheet of bullet points, or maybe a copy of the brochure or direct mail piece that customers will soon see.
- Tell them in person. Do you have regular company-wide employee meetings? If so, devote a portion of those meetings to sharing information about the latest company initiatives.
- Tell them in multiple settings. Look for opportunities to mention your latest project. Talk about it when you see employees on the job site, in the hallway or in the break room. Call team leaders into your office, ask for their input and let them know they are an important part of the success of this new program.
Tell them until you are sick and tired of telling them. Then tell them again. It’s true that by the time you are weary of hearing yourself talk about it, your message is just beginning to take root with your audience. Just keep talking.
- Give them ample opportunity to ask questions. Every time you talk about it, end the conversation by asking for input from your employees. In newsletters, provide an email address. In personal contact and in meetings, leave time in the conversation for taking questions. No matter how you reach out, make sure you provide an avenue for your employees to ask questions.
- Be transparent. When they ask questions, they want answers. Sometimes you may not have the answers, and it’s OK to say, “I don’t know, but let me get back to you with an answer.” Other times you may not be at liberty to share the information they have asked for. It’s OK to say, “that is not something we can talk about at this moment for (financial/legal/competitive) reasons, but when we can share that information I’ll be sure to let you know.”
Imagine what would have happened that day if Joe Lineman had been empowered by his company. He would have encouraged the store owner to participate in the round up charity program. And how many people would the store owner have seen and encouraged on a weekly basis? The ripple effect would have been incredible, and would have helped so many people in that community.
You have plenty to think about when getting a new product or service ready to launch. But don’t forget the most important step — communicate with your employees first, and you will have a group of empowered advocates ready to help you make the launch a success.