Why Happy Employees Determine Your Success
Sometimes happiness takes the form of a goldfish. When a travel-weary family of four checked into Chicago’s Hotel Allegro in the middle of the night, the two boys, both under 10, asked hopefully at the front desk about the possibility of a goldfish for their room. It wasn’t as odd a request as it sounds—the Allegro is a part of the Kimpton chain, which makes goldfish available during a guest’s stay at some locations. But unfortunately for the parents, the Allegro is not one of them.
Linton Murphy, a bellman at the property, overheard the crestfallen kids. He set out immediately on a 10-minute walk to the chain’s Hotel Monaco, which does have goldfish for guests, and talked the night manager into loaning one out. Not long after, Murphy appeared at the door of the beleaguered family, pet in hand—along with a note from the fish that gave it a name and a backstory.
The family was thrilled, and the father took time to send a note to Niki Leondakis, COO of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants. Shortly thereafter, she ran into Murphy and asked him why he had gone to the trouble. His response? “When my kids are unhappy, my wife is unhappy. When my wife is unhappy, I am unhappy. I just imagined that poor guy stuck in that hotel room and those kids not letting up about the fish,” he explained, adding, “I love my job. I get to do anything I want to make someone happy.”
Stories like that abound at Kimpton properties, which are well known for their high level of customer service, as well as for being great places to work. Leondakis says that’s no coincidence. “Taking care of our employees comes before taking care of our guests,” she says. “There’s no way the guests are going to have a great experience if our employees are unhappy.”
Employee happiness may not be at the top of many executives’ lists, especially these days, but it should be. Compare Fortune magazine’s annual list of best places to work with the Fortune 500, and you’ll find a lot of crossover. Experts say that happy employees—especially in customer service—are more engaged with their jobs and therefore more likely to go the extra mile.
Happy is as happy does
“Happy employees make the customers happy,” says Alexander Kjerulf, a self-proclaimed chief happiness officer, lecturer and consultant on happiness at work, as well as the author of Happy Hour Is 9 to 5. “Studies show very clearly that when employees like their jobs, customers get better service and are more satisfied.”
Indeed, aggregate studies have found that between 40 and 80 percent of customer satisfaction and loyalty is determined by the customer-employee relationship, according to a white paper by the Corporate Leadership Council. Companies from Sears to PNC Bank to Nortel have found that when they address employee happiness issues, they see their customer satisfaction and loyalty figures jump. Just how much is a matter of some debate, but there are clear signs of a correlation. Sears analyzed data from 800 stores and found that a 5 percent increase in employee satisfaction drove a 1.3 percent increase in customer satisfaction, in turn bringing a 0.5 percent increase in revenue growth, according to a study published in the Harvard Business Review.
Online shoe retailer Zappos.com puts so much stock in keeping its employees happy that it even offers them $2,000 to quit after one month on the job. Those who bypass the cash clearly want to work there—a commitment that isn’t necessarily a hallmark of people in customer service. “Our number one priority is employee culture, not customer service,” says Aaron Magness, who works in business development for the Las Vegas–based company, which posted sales of $1 billion in 2008.
“The fact is that customer service people are usually not as career-oriented as professionals, so they may be less interested in whether they are representing customer service for a lending institution or a car dealership or health insurance,” says Dr. Andrew Shatte, co–managing director of Adaptiv Learning Systems, a consultancy focused on resilience and success programs at work. But Shatte says that if you want happy customer service representatives, commitment is critical. “Ask why they want a job in your organization in particular,” he advises.
What is happiness, anyway?
In a workplace setting, many experts say that engagement or connection to work may be what ultimately leads to happiness. “Make someone connected to their job, and happiness will follow,” says Shatte.
“Trying to directly impact an employee’s happiness is going to be an extremely tricky thing to do. The crucial thing is to have people who are truly connected to their jobs—they can’t think of a better place to be for those 8 to 10 hours a day.” But, adds Jim Harter, chief scientist of workplace and well being at the Gallup Organization, just hiring happy people may not lead to great customer service. “An employee can be happy in a box and not engage anyone else,” he says.
Ensuring that your customer service representatives care about your company requires first defining your corporate culture—and making sure its tenets are concrete enough to be hired and fired for, says Zappos.com’s Magness.
The shoe retailer’s culture is defined by 10 core values, which range from “Deliver WOW through service” to “Create fun and a little weirdness.” To that end, the company encourages “random parades.” (Recently, the finance department came through the building offering free hugs.) During the Beijing Olympics, 20 people dressed in short-shorts and other athletic attire strutted through Zappos.com’s offices.
If weirdness and random parades aren’t part of your company culture, that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to have gloomy employees. At Kimpton, the positive culture involves celebrating diversity, individuality and caring for yourself, others and the environment. Those are different criteria than at Zappos.com, but fitting them still means finding happy people.
Hiring happy DNA
“One hundred percent of our employees have to be people who make you smile,” Leondakis says. “We hire for a ‘Kimpton Spirit.’ It’s not a particular type of personality so much as a happy, optimistic, genuinely caring human being. It doesn’t matter what their résumé says, it doesn’t matter if their credentials are the best you’ve ever seen. The technical side is less important to us than who this person is as a human being.” That focus works: In an industry where turnover can reach nearly 65 percent, Kimpton sees almost 20 percent fewer employees leave annually—a big savings in recruitment and training.
“We have employees who say, ‘I am happy in my job because I have the power to make someone’s day,” says Leondakis. “They really want to do something nice for someone, and that’s because their managers do that for them.”
Nowhere is maintaining that culture harder than on the front lines of customer interaction. “Customer service people really take a beating,” says Adaptiv’s Shatte. Offering an example of work he did with Sprint, where some customers were on hold for more than an hour before reaching a live person, he says that “[employees] who really weathered this the best felt that they were helping people.”
That’s certainly the case at Kimpton: The hotel and restaurant chain uses a variety of techniques to identify people who have the “Kimpton Spirit,” from interview questions that probe for behavior-oriented responses to personality tests. Still, Leondakis says that what it really comes down to is trusting the way a person makes the hiring manager feel. “If you find yourself mentally at the beach during the job interview, that’s a clue. Don’t hire, because this person is not engaging you,” she says. “If they can’t engage you during the interview, when they are generally at their best, they’re not going to be engaging when the rubber hits
the road—when a big group is trying to check in all at once, or when it’s eight o’clock in the restaurant on Friday night. They’re not going to become engaging under stress.”
Author Kjerulf says that Kimpton’s style of approach—deemphasizing professional skills and knowledge and looking more at personality, optimism and personal happiness—is a key to crafting a happy team, though he notes that there are several other ways to find out if an applicant is happy. “Ask people to talk about situations where they were happy,” he says. “If answers come readily to mind for them, they’re likely to be happy and optimistic. If they find it easier to recall negative experiences, they’re less likely to be happy.”
To attract people who fit into Zappos.com’s world, the company uses a colorful application, with a crossword puzzle, a word-finding exercise and questions like, “If you had a theme song, what would it be?” and “On a scale of 1 to 10, how weird do you think you are?” What kind of response is the company looking for? On the second question, Magness says that someone who rates himself a 1 probably won’t feel too comfortable at Zappos.com, but a 10 might be too weird even for them.
“We don’t believe that being happy and nice is teachable,” Magness explains. His interview was interrupted occasionally by raucous laughter and party horns in the background.
Once you have the right team members in place, it is important to give them the tools they need to do their job well. That seems obvious, but it’s often overlooked, says Gallup’s Harter.
That is a critical part of the service experience at Zappos.com—where, from day one, an employee has as much power as the CEO to make a customer happy—and at Kimpton, where every employee is empowered to do what she sees fit to make a guest happy. “We don’t have hard and fast rules around empowerment,” Leondakis says. “You do what you need to do to solve the problem.”
For Kimpton managers who are hired from other hotel chains, that level of power can sometimes cause anxiety, Leondakis says. “The lack of rules scares them,” she says. “They are afraid the employees are going to give away the store.” If an employee makes a mistake—for example, comps someone’s entire stay because his breakfast was delivered late—there are no rules that could have prevented it, so Leondakis says the employee won’t be reprimanded. “We coach them about appropriate resolutions,” she says, adding that the manager will have a conversation with the employee after the fact about what level of attention would have been appropriate in that situation. “The benefits of giving them full reign to do whatever they need to do to take care of a guest far outweigh any mistakes that get made.”
JEANNE O'BRIEN COFFEY is a happy freelance writer in Massachusetts.