Magazine article Marketing

Human Resources: The Battle to Harness People Power

Magazine article Marketing

Human Resources: The Battle to Harness People Power

Article excerpt

If employees are a marketing medium, should HR professionals have a greater say in the message to ensure that frontline staff are true brand ambassadors, asks Helen Edwards.

Last summer, the human resources team at First Direct threw a mock beach party for its 3500 employees. Held at the bank's call centre in Leeds, it featured a contest to see how many people could fit onto a lilo. The event was not simply an attempt to boost morale during one of the wettest British summers in modern times; as part of First Direct's brand engagement programme, it was intended to give frontline staff an appreciation of the bank's identity.

Jane Hanson, head of HR at First Direct, says the company encourages its staff to express their individuality. 'It's important that staff don't leave their personalities behind when they come into the call centre,' she explains. 'Events like this help staff to relax and be themselves when talking to customers.'

First Direct has adopted this approach because it knows that delivering service with characteristic style can give its brand a real marketing edge. And the way in which the business manages the often prickly interface between HR and marketing is remarkably simple. 'The HR and marketing teams sit next to each other in open-plan offices above the call centre,' says Hanson. 'We meet once a week to talk about people and brand issues.'

The notion that employees are a vital marketing tool is hardly new, but the pace of change in the media landscape has forced brand-owners to give the idea fresh thought. The rise of social media means that consumers can affect an organisation's reputation through the comments they make in online forums and other digital channels. So, if they have a bad experience, it is easy for customers to vent their spleen in a very public way. This development does not just affect service brands; any company with a customer helpline is now more exposed to the consumer spotlight.

But many marketers seem to be unaware that frontline employees are key promoters of the brand they represent. Marketing's We'll Call You column indicates the failure of many big-name brands to get their people on-message. Nike, for instance, recently scored a paltry 1/10 for its inept handling of a call relating to one of its own promotions, with the caller being passed from one uninformed and unhelpful operative to another (Marketing, 17 October 2007). One of the slickest marketing operations in the world was humbled as soon as a member of staff was put on the spot.

The question must be asked, then, as to where marketers are going wrong Chief among the flaws of even those marketers who appreciate the significance of frontline staff is the way they try to bring them on-message. Marketers are in the persuasion business, but their approach to 'internal marketing', although well-meaning, often fails to engage employees.

HR professionals, on the other hand, understand that call-centre staff - often the lowest-paid of a company's employees - are more likely to be motivated by incentives such as higher wages, than they are by a slick marketing presentation. In other words, discontent in the workplace needs to be resolved before employees are asked to add brand evangelism to their existing duties, or the company risks exposing its internal problems to consumers.

Not all marketers can arrange to sit next to their HR colleagues in an open-plan office - assuming they would want to in the first place. However, at the very minimum, they need to establish and maintain a dialogue with the HR department and work collaboratively on staff engagement programmes. This involves ongoing internal research, interactive workshops for staff, brand events, induction sessions, employee awards and other incentives, and annual brand reviews. An end-of-year pep talk from the boss is simply not enough to make employees feel part of the brand they represent and proud to promote it. …

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