Our team joined Qualtrics last October to create the XM Institute, and one of the great things that we’ve found is that there are many people across Qualtrics who are experts in different aspects of Experience Management (XM). So I decided to interview one of them, Ben Granger.
Ben is a Sr. Principal for Global EX Strategy. He spends his days thinking about and helping organizations design leading-edge EX programs. Like many of the subject matter experts across Qualtrics, Ben had a strong background prior to joining the company. He has a Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and has worked in EX at Verizon.
Here’s our Q&A:
Q1: We describe experience management as a discipline where organizations “continuously learn, propagate insights, and rapidly adapt.” Based on your work with companies, what do you think that looks like for a company that is really doing well with EX?
Ben: This shows up in the mindset that the organization has around employee experience. Namely, the belief that they will never get it perfect, that EX is a moving target, and that they should always look for ways to improve. It’s ironic, actually, that some of the most mature EX programs I run into are run by organizations that seem to always feel like they are behind. They have this thirst to keep pushing things forward. Companies like Quicken Loans and Rogers Communications come immediately to mind – they are always very humble about the current state of their programs but in actuality, their programs are well ahead of others in their industries. I think this is because those organizations or either intentionally or unintentionally treating EX as a discipline.
Q2: We recently defined Six XM Competencies, Lead, Realize, Activate, Enlighten, Respond, and Disrupt. Can you share some best EX practices you’ve seen in one or two of the competencies?
Ben: Firstly, I should say that I am a big believer that the “best practices” organizations employ should be heavily dependent on their maturity.
Some of the practices that highly mature EX programs use could backfire if an organization has never done formal employee measurement before. So that is always a consideration we make when we advise our clients.
That said, one competency that I really like is “Activate”, which is about building the skills, support, and motivation for EX. This is where many organizations get stuck in a rut. Leaders see the inherent value of measuring and improving EX but when they think about increasing the measurement of EX, it sounds very daunting because of the way that EX or engagement has been measured in the past. They are jaded by the old school process. So to “Activate” the organization, you really have to change leaders’ mindsets. You have to reframe what “action planning” is, which sometimes involves calling it something different! Basically, instead of handing leaders a dense report of data and charts, give them short and prescriptive readouts that are focused on “what they should do to improve EX”. Instead of forcing them to add “action planning” to their list of things they have to do, provide the EX insights in the same tools and systems they already use. These simple practices show leaders that it can actually be simple to leverage employee insights.
Another that is a lot of fun is “Enlighten” which is about providing actionable insights across the organization. For this one, I like to borrow the principles and practices from the customer experience side of the house. For example, if you compare how organizations structure their employee surveys and their customer surveys, there is usually a huge difference. The CX surveys tend to be shorter, more conversational, more in-the-moment, and built into the apps and systems that the customers use. On the other hand, the EX surveys are quite the opposite – they are long, tedious, and oftentimes require employees to completely leave their work environment to provide feedback. And to be clear, this is absolutely ridiculous and there is no reason why this has to the case! So when we are building the enlighten competency for our EX-clients, we focus on those consumer-based principles – simple things like shortening surveys, giving employees multiple avenues to provide feedback (e.g., on their mobile phones), making the survey items more conversational, integrating the feedback into the systems that employees are already using to make feedback part of the process.
Q3: When you run into companies that are just starting their EX efforts, what are the type of things that you typically recommend that they start with?
Ben: Employee engagement surveys have been under attack in the popular press recently but honestly, I think this is one of the most practical and reasonable places to start on the EX journey. So when I work with organizations that really have never done formal EX measurement in the past, I usually recommend starting with this approach.
I think this is important for a couple of reasons: (1) it gives the organization an opportunity to explicitly ask their employees for feedback. I borrow that line from professor Ed Batista because I think it summarizes how important it is for organizations to “explicitly ask their employees for their feedback, (2) it gives everyone in the organization the opportunity to give feedback, and (3) it gives the organization time to build some of those competencies like “realize” and “activate” without overburdening employees or leaders.
For example, if an organization has never done employee surveying before, then before jumping to frequent pulsing, for example, they have to build trust among employees that their feedback won’t be used against them, and that their feedback matters. And on the flip side, you have to build manager capabilities to understand and act on feedback. If this isn’t a natural activity for them, it will take time to build these capabilities. And a traditional engagement survey is a great way to start building that trust among employees and those capabilities among managers. And (4) this is the progression that most organizations have taken. So it’s a well-worn path and we know exactly how to evolve EX programs from that starting point.
Q4: Thinking about the future, what are some of the things that you imagine companies will be doing with their EX programs that they are not typically doing today?
Ben: I mentioned this earlier but I think that we will see a lot more consumer-based principles make their way into EX programs. We are already seeing it happen in mature organizations but this will accelerate in the next few years with the field of XM and the continued war for talent.
Another that I think we will see more and more of is passive listening. For example, collecting employee experience data from social media and combining those insights with insights from formal, active surveys. We have some clients that are already doing this and it appears to be highly effective so long as organizations don’t misuse them and are transparent with their employees about them.
And of course, I definitely see much more integration across the pillars of XM. We are only scratching the surface of what’s possible today. The linkage research across EX and CX is nearly 20 years old now and yet, there hasn’t been much in the way of progress in the field since. That will change and that will change quickly. Organizations are going to move well beyond the simple link between things like EX and CX and begin to have a sophisticated understanding of the interrelationships among practices that improve EX, downstream and long term CX outcomes, the brand experiences those practices create and how those brand perceptions, in turn, impact their ability to attract and retain employees and customers. And by the way, my guess is that this whole chain of events and experiences starts with EX!
Q5: When organizations are actively trying to improve EX, what are some of the obstacles that they really need to watch out for?
Ben: Trying to move too fast – this is a self-imposed obstacle in a lot of cases and it is completely avoidable. It is very tempting to want to go from nothing to best-in-class overnight. But this is rarely (if ever) a good idea. As I mentioned earlier, you have to first build trust among employees and capabilities and buy-in among leaders. This takes time to do. And business leaders can get impatient – they invested in improving EX and they want to see returns…today! I try to set my clients’ expectations – EX programs are kind of like diesel engines – they take a little while to get going but once they are running, they just keep on going.
Making assumptions based on anecdotes – this also is super common and avoidable. The point here is that organizations should not bypass legitimate measures of EX in favor of one-off anecdotes or examples. Within XM, we talk about experience gaps and oftentimes, these gaps exist between what organizational leaders “think” is happening and what employees or customers really think. There is nothing wrong with leveraging personal anecdotes and examples but using those as the sole source of information to drive actions or processes intended to improve EX is a terrible idea.
A quick example – I was working with a large retail bank a few years ago and one of the consistent themes that came out of their annual survey was that call center employees were not happy with their “career progression” opportunities. At the time, their survey was not sensitive enough to dive deeper into what employees meant by this. A few sr. leaders reasoned that the way to fix that was to build a formal career progression program to give employees a line of sight into their next move. But we suggested that before they did that, we should really try and understand what the employees meant by career progression. And sure enough, we did a follow-up survey and looked at their open-ended comments and the employees were actually much more interested in stretch projects and having more autonomy in their day-to-day jobs and opportunities to do different jobs in different departments. This obviously made a huge difference in what the company implemented…and saved them a ton of money by the way.
Q6: What most excites you about the emerging category of Experience Management?
Ben: I mentioned it a few times but I am super excited about what we can learn and leverage from the CX space. I have learned so much from my CX counterparts over the last few years.
I also legitimately think XM is going to make the business world much more human. If you think about it, what XM essentially states is that it’s actually better for business if you do right by your employees, your customers, and your stakeholders. Imagine if the opposite were true or if organizations perceived the opposite to be true? IF that were the case, our lives would be much worse!
But luckily that is NOT the case. So XM will continue to prove this to be the case and eventually the organizations that provide the best experiences will be the ones still standing…and that is a great thing for all of us!
Q7: Now for something a bit more personal, what is your favorite quote from a movie, and why does it resonate with you?
Ben: “Where we’re going we don’t need roads” – Doc Brown from Back to the Future II.
First of all, this is one of my favorite movie trilogies of all time – I could watch the first two movies over and over and never get tired.
But tying it to EX, it really resonates with me that we often think about the future in terms of what we’ve done or what we’ve had to do in the past. Like when leaders immediately get scared of something like lifecycle feedback or pulse surveys because they immediately think about how painful running that one annual survey was in the past. Sometimes, we have to forget the past and imagine what it could/should be like.