The Ultimate Guide to Customer Engagement in 2021
Published: October 21, 2021
When improving customer relations , we typically think about service and support rather than customer engagement. However, this goes beyond high-quality customer service. Delighting customers and encouraging them to spend more money with your brand isn't enough. In fact, this could make them feel transactional and less meaningful to your company.
Instead, you need to improve the customer experience to strengthen their loyalty to your brand through customer engagement. It needs to be clear that you value your relationship with your buyers and not just the money they spend. That's why you need to consistently engage with customers and demonstrate your dedication to their needs.
In this post, we'll discuss everything you need to know about customer engagement, including industry examples, software, tools, and how it can enhance customer relations in your organization.
Customer engagement is the process of interacting with customers through a variety of channels in order to strengthen your relationship. For many businesses, this process begins with the first interaction and extends beyond the point of purchase. Companies can engage with customers via social media, email, websites, community forums, or any other space where they're communicating or consuming content.
The goal of customer engagement is to offer customers something of value beyond your products and services. High-quality products initially attract customers; relevant content is what keeps them around. Marketers do this through a strategy known as customer engagement marketing.
Customer Engagement Marketing
Customer engagement marketing is a marketing strategy that delivers timely, relevant, and personalized messages to consumers. What sets it apart from other marketing tactics is the personalization element. The relevancy of the content is what makes customers feel like engaged members of your brand's community.
Why Customer Engagement Marketing Works
You want your brand to be omnipresent so that no matter when your customer needs your help, your team is there. However, being omnipresent can become exhausting for even the largest organizations with resources to spend.
Customer engagement marketing works because it takes the pressure off of just one team to produce an exceptional customer experience. This type of strategy encompasses the entire customer journey and every team within your customer that supports it — from customer service, to operations, to sales.
How to Implement a Customer Engagement Marketing Strategy
To implement a viable customer engagement marketing strategy, you'll want to employ the following tactics:
1. Set a goal for successful customer engagement.
Any great strategy begins with a S.M.A.R.T. goal. Start setting your goals by thinking about why your business needs more customer engagement. It's easy to assume that you need it because engagement is good, but what exactly does that mean for your specific organization? Better yet, what's the benefit for the customer to engage with you? Figuring this out before your teams get started designing engagement campaigns will keep everyone within scope, on budget, and producing work that actually matters.
2. Begin cross-functional team collaboration.
As mentioned earlier, customer engagement isn't just one department's responsibility. In the early stages of this strategy, identify which teams have a part to play in engaging customers and get their buy-in. Not only is it easier to spread the workload across departments, but you'll also have a much more comprehensive strategy in the long run that truly serves the customer.
3. Identify where and how customers should engage in both the long and short term.
Later in this article, you'll learn more customer engagement strategies, and you'll see that not all of them will work during every phase of your campaign. Segmenting your efforts into short-term and long-term tactics will help you focus on the right deliverables at the right time. After all, your customers will want to engage with you on more than one occasion, on more than one platform.
4. Gather feedback from internal and external stakeholders as well as customers.
Once your campaign is live, review the goals you set in step number one. Track metrics that align with these goals so that you can monitor the success of your activities. Include internal stakeholder feedback from members of the cross-functional teams on the project as well as external partners who might be involved. Don't forget to gather feedback from the customers themselves so you can identify what's working and what needs work with enough time to make changes.
5. Iterate your customer engagement marketing strategy regularly.
You don't have to wait an entire year to iterate your customer engagement marketing strategy, especially if you have both short and long-term milestones for your customers to hit. Whether you decide to track progress weekly, monthly, or quarterly, stick to consistent intervals so you can easily measure it over time.
In addition to customer engagement marketing, there are a few other ways you can foster customer engagement. Let's take a look at those next.
Customer Engagement Strategies
- Build a brand voice.
- Share your brand voice online.
- Personalize customer experiences.
- Create content based on customer history.
- Use social media contests.
- Meet customers where they are.
- Use relationship marketing.
Based on this guide, it's clear that customer engagement positively impacts your business and ensures a stronger customer base. However, it's not so simple to just jump right in. Consider the following strategies for ways to incorporate customer engagement into your organization.
1. Build a brand voice.
Customers want to engage with a brand that has a personality. Many brands have differentiated themselves through the use of a unique brand voice. This personifies the company making it more relatable and memorable to its customers.
For instance, Glossier is an e-commerce makeup and skincare brand that stands out from competitors by donning a very playful, authentic personality. Women crave being a "Glossier Girl" — someone who embraces their authentic self and uses skincare and makeup as a means of highlighting their existing features, rather than disguising them with other beauty products.
Creating this brand voice establishes your company as a thought-leader in its industry. Customers will look at you as an expert who can give them advice on different products and services.
2. Share your brand voice online.
Your brand voice is more powerful when you share it with others. Start with building a personality on social media, just as you would with a personal account. Post content that aligns with your brand values and share messages that have similar meanings.
If you want your brand to have a more light-hearted personality, consider brands like Wendy's which embraces humor as a means of poking fun, like in the example below. Social media is a great way to engage with customers that may not have discovered or connected with your brand.
3. Personalize customer experiences.
Some companies, like Amazon, have software that makes recommendations based on past purchases or search history. Not every company has to invest in such complex technology. There are other ways to personalize customer experiences, including asking customers how you can help.
Some companies start the customer journey by asking them to fill out a user profile or take a quiz that has them select preferences. For instance, Birchbox asks customers what their skin and hair types are, which helps the company personalize products in their monthly subscription boxes. This way, you can obtain customer feedback at the beginning of the experience, then delight the customer from there.
4. Create content based on customer history.
Feedback surveys can help you create and share content based on what customers have purchased in the past. Unlike Birchbox, however, these suggestions aren't vital to the customer experience. Rather, they complement and add a special touch that exceeds your customers' expectations.
For instance, Spotify has a Discover Weekly playlist which is a playlist of songs that it creates for each user. The feature incorporates an algorithm that discovers each user's "taste profile" based on the songs they listen to and similar songs featured in other users' playlists. This campaign is a unique offering that shows how Spotify is helping users discover more music they might enjoy.
5. Use social media contests.
Cultivate customer engagement through friendly competition. The possibilities are endless when it comes to social media contests and giveaways, but no matter which route you choose, this type of activity can spark rapid customer engagement.
Beware that contests and giveaways can result in short-term engagement if they're not done strategically. To combat this, have a comprehensive plan for your social media engagement campaign that gives each customer a place to land long-term.
For example, if you have a new product or service, choose a long-term customer engagement strategy to promote it on — like YouTube. Then use your social media giveaway to drive engagement on your YouTube channel by asking customers to subscribe and watch videos about your new offerings.
6. Meet customers where they are.
An important part of a customer engagement strategy is to share relevant content in a place your customers will see it. That means posting the secret to business success on a billboard in the middle of the desert probably won't yield the engagement results you're looking for.
That's why it's important to meet your customers where they are — and social media isn't always the best way to do it. Sure, many of your customers can be found on Twitter, LinkedIn, and even TikTok, but they're probably on other channels too. When delighting your customers, you want to show up in the places they least expect you to be.
Explore options like:
- Murals in places with lots of foot traffic
- QR codes in and on modes of public transportation
- Holiday cards sent the old-fashioned way — in the mail
- Sponsorships on niche YouTube channels
7. Use relationship marketing.
Building relationships between your organization and your customers is a sure way to turn them into advocates of your brand. Relationship marketing is a strategy that can be used at any stage of your business. To implement this strategy effectively, you'll need to incentivize customer engagement. Tools like Rybbon can help you keep track of your outreach efforts and ensure that your customers are hitting the right engagement milestones throughout your campaign.
The use of customer engagement marketing strategies can make all the difference when it comes to reducing customer churn . In fact, let's take a look at a few companies that used this method to retain customers at their business.
Customer Engagement Examples
- Gravity Payments
Every brand has the potential to introduce engagement strategies that benefit its current and potential customer base . This is illustrated in the following examples, which include companies of various sizes and revenue.
For many professionals, Slack has become an integrated part of our lives during the work day, but sometimes we need the app on our mobile phones, too. Slack recognizes the importance of its software in its customers' lives — and how that software can contribute to an "always-on" culture.
In response, Slack shared this gentle reminder to customers who downloaded or updated the app.
What we like about Slack's customer engagement:
If you're anything like me, you're probably wondering "How did they know I needed to hear this right now?" While it's highly unlikely that the company's product team moonlights as mind readers, they are very attuned to their customers in order to spur engagement and interaction. Taking the opportunity to share a customer-centric message in a place they visit quite often is a recipe for delight and engagement.
As you may have seen, in 2014 Coca-Cola launched a new marketing campaign that took the nation by storm. #ShareACoke removed the company's logo on 20-ounce bottles and replaced it with 250 of the most common names in the U.S. The campaign was successful because of the customer engagement element.
What we like about Coca-Cola's customer engagement:
This wasn't just a typical marketing campaign; in fact, the highly personalized aspect made it even more engaging. Customers could physically see a piece of themselves on a Coke bottle. Even those without common names could follow the "Share A Coke" tour where they could personalize their own cans. This was a simple campaign that related to Coke's target audience and got people talking about the brand.
Carhartt , a work apparel company, introduced new technology to its website that helps customers connect with experts and make smarter purchases. When a customer displays a certain behavior, a pop-up appears that asks them if they'd like to chat with an expert.
It was found that when customers clicked "yes," they found the right product, were more satisfied with it, and purchased it again in the future. In fact, this led to a 10-fold increase in conversion rates compared to other self-service options, as well as a 10-25% increase in the average order value.
What we like about Carhartt's customer engagement:
Carhartt's customer engagement strategy proves that your business doesn't have to use the latest technology or even automated tools to provide an engaging customer experience. One-on-one interactions between your service team and the customer is still a viable strategy that can turn passive customers into brand enthusiasts.
Gymshark has grown its customer base exponentially through social media, guerrilla, and influencer marketing. The brand has a unique ability to reach its customers with highly personalized and relatable content that's sharable and interactive.
In this example, Gymshark joined the conversation about the gas shortage in the UK by setting up an interactive pumping station. This customer engagement campaign brings both prospective and existing customers face-to-face with the Gymshark brand to build relationships in a way that's authentic.
What we like about Gymshark's customer engagement:
Gymshark balances a serious concern of its UK customers (a gas shortage) with a positive outlet to blow some steam (a popup workout space). This customer engagement tactic is on brand and on time, showing its audience that the company is always listening and showing up when they need it most.
How does a company that's already dominating its industry do more for its customers? Well, it comes up with a way to make loyal customers feel special.
Starbucks began a new effort called the Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room which lets customers chat with coffee specialists, watch coffee brew from fresh beans, and try a variety of rare coffees.
What we like about Starbucks' customer engagement:
This is a multi-sensory experience that takes customers to the next level. They feel like an active part of the Starbucks journey and are getting an inside look into the company's product development process. It's something exciting and unique that further engages customers and gives them a new appreciation for the brand beyond the same coffee every morning.
6. Gravity Payments
Sometimes, customer engagement can occur as a result of another initiative. After hearing about his employees' struggles, Dan Price, CEO of Gravity Payments , decided to implement a minimum annual salary of $70K. While the move was meant to improve employee satisfaction, productivity, and quality of life, the change also had a profound impact on customer engagement.
Monthly leads grew from 30 to 2,000 inquiries, profits doubled, and customer retention increased from 91% to 95%. It was clear that customer engagement was directly tied to employee satisfaction. When employees are treated better, they want to work harder for their companies, which results in happier customers.
What we like about Gravity Payment's customer engagement:
While these are great success stories, it can be hard to predict whether an engagement marketing campaign will be effective. Investing in an engagement platform, however, can ensure your campaigns will be consistently profitable for your business.
Rybbon walks the walk when it comes to customer engagement. This tool is used by thousands of businesses to manage customer engagement through reward programs, surveys, incentives, and more. But their commitment to the customer doesn't stop when their businesses are onboarded to its platform. The team at Rybbon is committed to engaging their own customers who use its platform, too.
What we like about Rybbon's customer engagement:
In a case study about biotech company Quincy Bioscience, one person said, “It’s been highly successful, we’ve captured thousands of leads, and the conversion rates are very high, almost everyone who receives the module completes it. We’re huge advocates of the platform.”
And that's the goal of customer engagement — to cultivate brand advocacy in your customer base.
Now that you understand the basics of customer engagement, how to use customer engagement marketing in your campaigns, and you've seen some examples of companies that are doing it well, try it on your own. Follow the tactics in this article to build a customer experience that will keep your brand top of mind for new and existing customers.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in July 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Don't forget to share this post!
How to Create an Effective Customer Journey Map [Examples + Template]
Digital Customer Experience: The Ultimate Guide for 2023
How to Implement a Hybrid Customer Service Strategy That Works [Expert Tips]
User Flows: 8 Tips For Creating A Super Smooth User Experience
11 Best Practices for B2B Customer Experience
Customer Experience vs. User Experience: What’s the Difference? [+ Examples]
What is Omni-Channel? 20 Top Omni-Channel Experience Examples
What is customer sentiment? [Expert Insight]
How to Create Great Customer Experiences on a Tight Budget
Customer Experience Analytics: What They Are & Solutions to Help Measure Them
Outline your company's customer journey and experience with these 7 free customer journey map templates.
100% Free CRM
Nurture and grow your business with customer relationship management software.
Working together with State Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies and their partners to effectively implement the requirements of WIOA
You are here
Business engagement models and functions, what models & functions work best for business engagement, think beyond the job title: leadership values and vision.
One of the most challenging aspects of implementing an effective business engagement strategy is that of presenting a consistent message, public image, or brand identity – and this starts with the development of a shared vision and strong plan for internal communication. Leadership is the strategic driver that moves State Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies (SVRAs) to build relationships with business and ensures high-quality services, dependability, and sustainability.
The Role of Leadership in Business Engagement
Some common organizational models and associated roles, centralized business relations unit.
In this model, business engagement is primarily the responsibility of dedicated staff located in the central VR office. This model supports a unified, consistent message to businesses and makes it easier to track business accounts and contacts. The agency's website can provide easily accessible information about services to businesses, and can offer a single point of contact for interested businesses.
Centralized operations may present a challenge in accessing smaller, local businesses that don't have a statewide presence. It can also be difficult to establish an effective system of communication about job-ready customers and possible job openings; counselors are usually best situated to have information about the former, and if job possibilities are being funneled through the central office it is necessary to quickly share the information with the field staff so action can be taken. In a small state this model may be efficient and effective.
Business specialists are responsible for knowing local labor markets, marketing VR services by participating in Chambers of Commerce events and similar activities, and responding to business needs for information and consultation. Meanwhile, they network frequently with local counselors who can link job-ready customers with interested businesses.
Direct Service Staff
More often in agencies that do not have a robust central or regional business engagement design, the role of engaging and supporting businesses falls to the community rehabilitation programs (CRPs) that are contracted to provide job development and placement services.
Back to top
Moving Beyond the Point of Contact: Internal Communication Plan
At different steps in the process of business engagement, new challenges arise for SVRAs. As the models indicate, the point of contact with a business or businesses may be a regional business relations rep, a VR counselor, a state coordinator of business relations, or a Community Rehabilitation Provider – or someone else!
Regardless of the model, internal communication is crucial for effective outcomes at all levels. Internal communication will make or break any organizational model. The most sophisticated customer tracking system will not ensure successful communication if there is no incentive to use it. It does very little good for a centralized Business Relations Specialist to have close relationships with potential employers if the field staff never get any information. Conversely, when it comes to responding to the need for qualified candidates, the point of contact needs information from VR counselors about customers who are ready and able to begin working.
Planning and Implementation of an Internal Communication System
Whether your VR agency is building a business engagement model from scratch or simply making improvements in an existing structure, effective internal communication is critical to success.
Communication inside large bureaucratic organizations is a constant challenge. In order to meet that challenge it is helpful to think about three elements of a communication system: the Who , the What , and the How .
The Who means the staff within the organization playing key roles and functions in the business engagement effort. The What refers to the information being exchanged among them. How refers to the methods being used to convey this information.
Today's VR business engagement models typically respond to dual customers: a business and a VR client. To determine what kind of information must be a critical part of an internal communication system, VR agencies need to consider the answers to some important questions about customers and who will use the information toward successful outcomes.
Here are some examples of questions to consider:
- Who are the leaders of the business engagement strategies in the agency? Who sets the direction for the rest of the staff’s involvement? Who clarifies the expectations around roles and responsibilities in the business engagement approach?
- Who initiates business contacts? Who maintains business accounts? Who shares the information within the organization? And with whom?
- Who ensures that VR consumer information, such as qualifications and availability, is readily accessible to meet demand-side needs?
- Who needs to know WHAT?
- What do VR counselors and business relations staff need to know about a company and a job opening to assure a quality job match?
- What client characteristics do VR counselors and business relations staff agree are critical for employment success?
- What labor market information gathered by business relations staff is of value to VR counselors and their clients? How and when can this information be used?
- What factors contribute to employment retention?
- What process measures can be introduced that will improve the quality of a business engagement effort? (e.g., number of referrals per job opening, number of interviews, job starts, number of client contacts-job shadow, informational interview, internships with businesses)
- What information exists within VR case management systems that can be used to forecast employment needs of clients?
- What kinds of information are businesses seeking about hiring people with disabilities?
- How will business relations staff ensure VR counselors are informed of employment opportunities?
- How will business contacts and accounts be shared?
- How can VR counselors access necessary business and labor market information in a way that is integrated with their daily work load?
- How do case management and business account systems interface?
- How is business account information kept current?
These are just a few examples of areas to be explored by VR agencies as part of a business engagement strategy. When consensus is achieved on the kind of information that is of value to various players, processes for sharing that information can be developed. The experience of asking and answering these kinds of questions has the potential of creating more trusting and productive relationships among VR counselors, business relations staff, and SVRA leadership.
How all of this information is communicated will vary greatly depending upon many factors, including agency size, geography, technology, and culture. The important factor is that administrators, business relations staff, and VR counselors participate in the design of whatever systems are developed to share information.
There is more to engaging business than creating positions and job descriptions within the SVRA. There must be a pervasive belief throughout all levels of the organization and all job titles that business is our customer, essential to our success. That critical message must be supported by systems that are aligned to deliver services to both industry segments and "Mom & Pop" shops, while preparing a qualified workforce of people with disabilities.
Download the brief, Developing a Business Relations Structure: Lessons Learned from VR Trailblazers [PDF] to learn more about six agencies’ business relations structures and functions, how they determined a business relations approach, and the challenges they faced throughout this process.
Necessary Functions for Business Engagement
VR agencies use many different models in engaging businesses at the state and local levels. Regardless of the model, there are certain functions that every VR agency must perform if it is to engage in a meaningful way with business. Who performs the functions depends on the vision and values of the organization, the size of the state and the agency, the number of full time positions and the geographic distribution of staff, the availability of and relationships with external partners, and economic development issues within the state. Download the guide, Building Business Relationships & Resources to help identify promising practices, tips, and questions to consider throughout the various stages of a business relationship lifecycle.
Business Engagement Staff Roles and Functions
The following sections review five Business Engagement functions: Marketing and Outreach, Assessing Business Needs, Responding to Business Needs/Requests, and Evaluating Customer Satisfaction.
MARKETING AND OUTREACH
Marketing and outreach.
Marketing programs, though widely varied, are all aimed at convincing people to try out or keep using particular products or services. According to the Small Business Administration, marketing emphasizes the value of the customer to the business, and has two guiding principles:
- All company policies and activities should be directed toward satisfying customer needs.
- Profitable sales volume is more important than maximum sales volume. ( sba.gov )
Business Outreach at VR
SVRAs are not seeking profit, but in a sense, they are selling a product or a service. If we replace the language in point 2—"profitable sales volume," with "high quality vocational outcomes," and "maximum sales volume" with "many quick closures"—this principle translates to a basic VR tenet: High-quality vocational outcomes are more important than many quick closures. We often hear "Careers vs. First Job/Any Job" as the distinguishing feature of the VR program among other workforce development programs.
Just as all VR participants have unique needs, so do businesses. As SVRAs seek to develop the most productive relationships with businesses, a firm understanding of the general functional capacity and skill base of the current clients receiving services as they relate to needed and available jobs in the local economy will aid in the profiling of target employers. (Fraser, 2008)
"Select a target market" is often the first piece of advice offered as organizations delve into marketing. Why? Because marketing isn't effective unless you know to whom you are marketing. To get results, your marketing must meet the needs of a defined group of people. Marketing messages must address specific needs and concerns. ( http://www.thinkadvisor.com/ )
Marketing involves repeatedly keeping the agency's name in front of the target market over an extended period of time. It takes work and persistence. If SVRAs are serious about gaining real results, it's wise to think of a marketing investment in terms of years rather than months. ( http://www.thinkadvisor.com/ )
Businesses must be contacted frequently in order to be responsive to vocational rehabilitation programs. Ideally, this is some form of consistent direct contact, but mailings, "e-blasts," newsletters, and other forms of publicity can maintain interest in your services and clients. (Fraser, 2008)
While some SVRAs conduct marketing initiatives and public information campaigns, a more familiar endeavor may be outreach. An external outreach effort requires true involvement in community organizations, such as Rotary, Chambers of Commerce, and other civic groups. Participation as a contributing member is critical to contacts with upper management in diverse businesses. In a nutshell, all VR personnel need to think "business engagement" both on and off the job. (Fraser, 2008)
SVRAs also need to develop an internal presence of business within the organization. On a basic level, employers may be brought in to teach job-seeking skills, provide informational interviews, or otherwise mentor clients. Over time, businesses may assume a more influential position on a project advisory board or the State Rehabilitation Council. How close can your program become to "being one" with the business community? (Fraser, 2008)
Oregon Commission for the Blind: The Business Perspective
How can VR market services to business? OCB asked business leaders what they think.
As part of their job-driven technical assistance project, the Oregon Commission for the Blind (OCB) and the Institute for Community Inclusion created a video series featuring OCB clients, Oregon businesses, and OCB business engagement staff.
In this marketing video, OCB lets businesses know that in addition to qualified job candidates, OCB offers a wide range of free services, including paid internships and other short-term work-based learning experiences; adaptive technology demonstrations; diversity training; accessible technology training and assessment; job retention; and much more.
Getting Your Message Out: The Power of Social Media
The pervasiveness of internet use in daily life creates an opportunity for organizations to make a “digital impact” through the effective use of social media. Its reach is vast. Recent marketing research from HubSpot reports that LinkedIn has 450 million members, with over 110 million of them visiting the site monthly. Facebook has 1.1 billion daily users, with 74% of them reporting to use the site for professional purposes. Read more...
R.T. Fraser / Successfully engaging the business community in the VR process, 2008.
ASSESSING BUSINESS NEEDS
Assessing business needs.
Businesses are looking for qualified, reliable employees. This is a given, but it's not true 365 days of the year, or even every year. If all that SVRAs have to offer is workers, there will be times that business has no need for us.
If we offer more, we stand a better chance of meeting a determined need. But how do we find out? How do we know what to offer and to whom?
A number of surveys have been conducted to determine needs of business in overcoming barriers to hiring people with disabilities. In one survey of mid-west managers, there was a strong need for adequate knowledge and experience related to hiring and retention of qualified individuals with disabilities and chronic health conditions. In the same survey, employers expressed need for support with identifying appropriate workplace supports, accommodations, and vocational services related to job retention and return to work (Chan, 2010).
Using a market research effort based on questionnaires given to current or prospective business leads, a SVRA can often uncover possible new products or services and identify dissatisfaction with currently offered services. Market research will also identify trends that affect potential relationships. Population shifts, legal developments, and the local economic situation should be monitored to quickly identify problems and opportunities (SBA).
Needs of individual businesses are as varied as the businesses themselves. Analysis of survey data and labor market trends only gives SVRAs part of the information. Once a relationship is established with a business, an important service that VR can provide is to help identify and prioritize their diversity needs. Frequently the need that is presented as a priority, such as hiring or training, is only the tip of the iceberg when a skilled professional begins to work on the underlying issues.
Some strategies for identifying business needs include:
- Involving frontline supervisors and workers in needs assessments to identify employer needs.
- Engaging groups of employers rather than single employers when possible.
- Partnering with employer associations when possible.
Download the guide, Interacting with Businesses: Guiding Questions Protocol , that provides sample responses and resources for business services representatives to reference as they respond to commonly asked questions by businesses.
BENEFITS OF SECTOR STRATEGIES
- Businesses experience greater success finding workers with the skills they need to compete and to expand.
- Workers receive relevant training that can lead to greater job stability and advancement opportunities.
Regional, industry-focused approaches to building skilled workforces are proving to be one of the most effective ways to align service providers to address the talent needs of businesses. Sector-based strategies take a comprehensive, broad-based approach to identifying and addressing skill needs across key industries within a region rather than focusing on the workforce needs of individual employers on a case-by-case basis.
These strategies require SVRAs and other regional workforce service providers to establish engaged and sustainable relationships with business to determine the specific skill and occupational requirements to meet industry needs. As these relationships strengthen, service providers will likely offer more customized, coordinated, and timely workforce solutions. Simultaneously, VR, education, and other training providers will refine programs and curricula to more tightly align with industry demands. (Kentucky Sector Strategies White Paper)
Chan, F., Strauser, D., Maher, P., Lee, E.-J., Jones, R., & Johnson, E.T. (2010). Demand-side factors related to employment of people with disabilities: A survey of employers in the Midwest region of the United States. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation.
Taylor, Colin, EMPLOYER ENGAGEMENT IN THE NATIONAL FUND FOR WORKFORCE SOLUTIONS, National Fund for Workforce Solutions, January 2011. http://www.jff.org/publications/employer-engagement-national-fund-workforce-solutions
RESPONDING TO BUSINESS NEEDS/REQUESTS
Responding to business needs/requests.
Business engagement is not a "one and done" deal. It is the establishment of a relationship over time, and the acknowledgement that needs change over the life of that relationship. Our response to emerging needs of business customers establishes our credibility and the long-term benefits of the relationship for all parties.
The following information was published by the National Fund for Workforce Solutions. It is a summary of effective business engagement strategies that are applicable in a VR setting. Actions that prioritize and demonstrate an ability to meet employer needs and/or requests may include:
- Providing employers with information—and lots of it
- Forecasting future skill shortages
- Adapting programming to employers’ future needs
- Aligning training programming, including customized training, with employer skill needs
- Tax incentives
- Employee retention/disability management
- Technical assistance
- Americans with Disabilities Act amendments and other legislation
- Training for potential hires, such as:
- On-the-job training
- Trial employment
- Job shadowing
The stage of the relationship between a SVRA and a particular business will indicate the kind of response that is appropriate, but there are basic principles that apply regardless of the specific need.
- Always demonstrate respect for the business and the people, no matter how little they understand disability.
- Respond in a timely manner.
- Directly address the issues presented, or find someone who will.
- Do what you say you will do.
Taylor, Colin, EMPLOYER ENGAGEMENT IN THE NATIONAL FUND FOR WORKFORCE SOLUTIONS, National Fund for Workforce Solutions, January 2011. http://www.jff.org/publications/employer-engagement-national-fund-workforce-solutions
EVALUATING CUSTOMER SATISFACTION
Evaluating customer satisfaction.
SVRAs have a long-standing history of assessing satisfaction with services provided and the subsequent results for people with disabilities who have received VR services. A similar approach must be taken with business customers in order to evaluate and improve VR business services. Some questions to ask your business customers include:
- Did the agency meet the identified need?
- Were services of the quality expected?
- Were services timely?
- Will you call on our agency again to meet future needs? Why or why not?
Some SVRAs are already tracking satisfaction of the business customer. As an example, Vermont DVR has information on its website regarding consumer, employer, and staff satisfaction survey results: http://vocrehab.vermont.gov/whoweare/ourresults/satisfaction
Frequency, tools, and modalities used in the evaluation effort will vary depending on the stage of the relationship and the content of the interaction(s). An annual emailed survey is probably the least productive way to get businesses to provide feedback on their satisfaction—how many of us bother to complete a satisfaction survey that may arrive months after we purchased an item or received a service?—but it may remind inactive business partners about the resources and services that are available from the VR agency.
Here are some other ways to assess business customer satisfaction. The approaches that take more time and personal attention generally yield the most useful information, so you need to balance the cost of the approach against the potential benefit.
- Follow-up survey (email or phone) immediately after services are provided to businesses (consultation, resources, referral of job candidates, etc.)
- Personal "check-back" visits to businesses following provision of services. This might also include leaving behind a short paper-and-pencil survey along with a pre-addressed envelope.
- Focus groups of businesses that have received services from the VR agency.
- Open discussions with business groups (e.g., Rotary Club) about VR's role and efforts.
Communication to Enhance Performance
The real value of a well-designed internal communication system is that the information that it produces will determine the performance of the business engagement system. Therefore it is important to build in regular reviews of the communication system to assess the quality and quantity of the information being shared.
Is the information helping VR counselors to identify potential job seekers more quickly? Are business relations specialists receiving quality candidates for the openings they are obtaining from business customers? Are job retention times improving? If the VR agency is not achieving the desired performance from the business engagement system, based upon these reviews, adaptations and changes need to be made with the full inclusion of business engagement staff and VR counselors.
What Models and Structures Work Best for Employer Supports?
Roles and functions.
VR agencies use many different models to support employers at the state and local levels. The various configurations of management, staff, and external contractors dictate the allocation of resources toward serving business customers and meeting the needs of employers of VR participants.
Regardless of the configuration, there are certain functions that every VR agency must perform if they are to support employers in a meaningful way. Who performs the functions depends on the vision and values of the organization, the size of the state and the agency, the number of full-time positions and the geographic distribution of staff, the availability of and relationships with external partners, and the economic development issues within the state.
While there are a variety of organizational models for engaging businesses, the tasks related to employer supports become the responsibility of the VR counselor as part of a consumer's Individualized Plan for Employment. Counseling and guidance must include discussion of necessary accommodations for success on the job. Through this dialogue, consumers may determine their comfort level in requesting accommodations and other kinds of support, the anticipated need for post-employment services, and the need for training in soft skills, including employee-employer relationship protocols. The need for supports–for both the employer and the employee–is highly individualized.
Ideally, the counselor-client relationship is expanded to include the employer once the individual with a disability acquires a job. In some cases, the VR counselor takes a back seat in the negotiation with the employer, but often there is a more active role as an employee advocate or employer educator. The counselor may provide information and referral, on-the-job training, planning for reasonable accommodations [PDF] , workplace training in disability awareness, or any other indicated consultation services. He or she may fulfill these responsibilities through purchased services or through the work of agency staff.
Webinar View ExploreVR two-part webinar, Reasonable Accommodations Process for VR Counselors Part 1 & Part 2 to learn more about the counselor’s role in the accommodations process for job seekers.
Who provides the supports?
It depends on the employer's needs, the resources of the agency, availability of qualified community rehabilitation providers, etc. The VR agency may offer specialized services for assistive technology or interpreting, may offer services of a business relations unit in providing workplace education, or may contract out most of the employer support once a job seeker is hired following a referral from VR.
When contracted service providers (e.g., CRPs) are used by a VR agency to provide services like job development, job placement, and job support, the counselor often maintains minimal involvement once the individual has been referred. This generally results in a total lack of connection between the counselor and the employer; the primary relationship is between the employer and the CRP, and the employer may not even realize that the VR agency is involved.
This is ill-advised for at least two reasons. First, although it would be ideal if every CRP provided excellent service to both the individual with a disability and the business, that is not always the case. As long as the case is open, the VR counselor retains a responsibility for making sure that appropriate and effective services are being provided, and adjustments to the plan are made as needed.
Second, when the counselor and the VR agency are invisible to the business customer, there are missed opportunities for further relationship building and networking with the business community. In addition, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act [PDF] requires the VR agency to collect wage and hour data six months and one year after the person exits the program; this may be difficult to do if the VR agency has no relationship with the business that has hired the VR participant.
On the other hand, there are several advantages to using contracted services to provide employer supports. Contracted services can be brought in as necessary, without providing a full-time book of work to a permanent VR employee. CRPs are often already engaged with employer support due to their service of customers referred by the state's developmental disabilities and/or mental health agencies. Employer support requires a different skill set from rehabilitation counseling, and counselors may not want to or feel qualified to provide these services.
In many states, contracted service providers are paid far less than their state employee partners. While this isn't necessarily good news for being able to access qualified and experienced providers, it can reduce the cost of job coaching and employer support services.
The model used to provide employer support has significant implications for the agency's fiscal planning and cost allocation. If services are provided by internal staff--whether counselors, aides, rehabilitation techs, employment specialists, or some other job title--then the number of staff and time allocations must provide enough capacity to meet the need for services. In particular, if counselors are the primary providers of employer services, their job descriptions and caseload sizes must reflect this responsibility and time commitment.
If services are provided by CRPs, the staff FTE requirement may be less, but funds must be allocated for contracted services as well as for agency staff to contract with and monitor these vendors. Depending on the number of vendors, the size of the state, and the need for contracted services, the cost for purchased services could be significant.
Necessary Functions for Employer Supports
Because of the individualized nature of effective employer supports, it's difficult to lay out a recipe for success. The VR participant who finds his own job and does not want to disclose his disability may not want or need any services beyond counseling and guidance. Another individual who needs customized employment, intensive job coaching, and long-term support may require a wide range of employer supports in order to be successful: job analysis and carving, coworker and supervisor consultation or training, access to assistive technology, and access to problem-solving resources for as long as she is employed.
Common areas of employer support include recruitment and hiring employees with disabilities; job matching, modification, and accommodation; support for job retention; and information/resources about laws and regulations. The following functions are relevant to all the employer support areas:
- Assessing business and employee needs
- Providing support and resources to employers of individuals with disabilities for recruitment, onboarding, training, and retention
- Tracking business accounts and results
- Managing/overseeing the work of contracted service providers
- Evaluating customer satisfaction (both employer and employee)
Assessing Employer Satisfaction with VR Services
Vocational Rehabilitation agencies should develop a procedure for assessing employer satisfaction with the employer support services offered. Since most VR agencies contract with Community Rehabilitation Programs (CRPs) to provide a significant portion of employer supports services, these surveys could also be used to evaluate the quality of services provided through those CRPs.
These surveys could assess employers’:
- Knowledge about the range of services available,
- Satisfaction with the quality and timeliness of the services,
- Satisfaction with the communication between the VR department/CRP and the employer,
- Satisfaction with the staff members providing services and their competence,
- Satisfaction with the applicants they hired from VR and their ‘fit’ with the employer’s business,
- Perceptions about the usefulness of the services.
Surveys should be kept as succinct as possible and could be administered biannually or once a year to gather data to support program improvement and accountability. Here are two examples shared by the North Carolina [DOC] and Alabama [DOC] VR agencies.
Communication Issues in Employer Supports
There are multiple communication issues that can arise when a VR agency offers to provide support to employers. Since VR agencies may choose different structures to provide these supports, it's impossible to recommend a single approach to efficient communication!
This document reviews some variations on the types of support that may be requested, the initial recipient of the request, and the person who ultimately provides the assistance. It goes on to suggest questions that should be discussed and resolved as the agency designs and implements their employer support services.
Support requests can come in to internal staff
- Business specialists (central, regional, or local)
- Employment specialists
- Counselor techs/aides
- Or CRPs working with the business
Requests can involve:
- Sourcing qualified candidates with disabilities
- Assistance with Section 503, the ADA, other laws and regulations
- Information/training on disabilities or disability etiquette
- Assistance in training, accommodating, or supporting newly hired VR participants
- Assistance in training, accommodating, or supporting former VR participants working at a business
- Assistance in training, accommodating, or supporting incumbent employees with disabilities with no previous VR involvement
Support can be provided by internal staff:
- AT specialists
- IL specialists
- SVRA job coaches
Questions about employer supports and internal communication:
- Who makes the initial response to requests for information, training or candidate referrals from businesses that have NOT hired VR participants in the past? Who follows up, and how do they get the referral? Who provides the service, and how do they get the referral? How is the service tracked for later reporting?
- Who makes the initial response to requests for information, training or candidate referrals from businesses that HAVE hired VR participants in the past? Who follows up, and how do they get the referral? Who provides the service, and how do they get the referral? How is the service tracked for later reporting?
- Who makes arrangements for assistance in training, accommodating, or supporting newly hired VR participants? Who follows up, and how do they get the referral? Who provides the service, and how do they get the referral? How is the service tracked for later reporting?
- Who makes arrangements for assistance in training, accommodating, or supporting former VR participants? Who follows up, and how do they get the referral? Who provides the service, and how do they get the referral? How is the service tracked for later reporting?
- Who makes arrangements for assistance in training, accommodating, or supporting incumbent employees with disabilities with no previous VR involvement? Who follows up, and how do they get the referral? Who provides the service, and how do they get the referral? How is the service tracked for later reporting?
Questions about employer supports and communication with contracted external providers (CRPs):
- What services are agreed upon? Who provides the service and what is the referral process? How is the service tracked for billing and reporting? How are these services and terms of the contract communicated to the VR agency field staff? And/or Business Relations staff?
- Communicate the employment goal and clearly specify how the CRP services are expected to contribute
- Contact the employer and share information about the role of VR in this partnership, as well as other employer supports VR might be able to provide
- Monitor and follow up on CRP communication about progress or lack thereof
Click here to explore journal articles on Employer Supports [PDF] .
- SUGGESTED TOPICS
- The Magazine
- Managing Yourself
- Managing Teams
- Work-life Balance
- The Big Idea
- Data & Visuals
- Reading Lists
- Case Selections
- HBR Learning
- Topic Feeds
- Account Settings
- Email Preferences
How Companies Can Improve Employee Engagement Right Now
- Daniel Stein,
- Nick Hobson,
- Jon M. Jachimowicz,
- Ashley Whillans
Start by connecting what people do to what they care about.
A year and a half into the pandemic, employees’ mental “surge capacity” is likely diminished. Managers must take proactive steps to increase employee engagement, or risk losing their workforce. Engaged employees perform better, experience less burnout, and stay in organizations longer. The authors created this Employee Engagement Checklist: a distilled, research-based resource that practitioners can execute on during this critical period of renewed uncertainty. Use this checklist to boost employee engagement by helping them connect what they do to what they care about, making the work itself less stressful and more enjoyable, and rewarding them with additional time off, in addition to financial incentives.
As the world stumbles toward a Covid-19 recovery, experts warn of a surge of voluntary employee departures, dubbed the “Great Resignation.” For instance, one study estimates that 55% of people in the workforce in August 2021 intend to look for a new job in the next 12 months. To counteract the incoming wave of employee turnover, organizations — more than ever — need to focus on cultivating employee engagement .
The evidence is clear. Engaged employees perform better , experience less burnout , and stay in organizations longer . Given engagement’s critical importance, we’ve created the Employee Engagement Checklist: a distilled, research-based resource that practitioners can execute on during this critical period of renewed uncertainty.
To develop the checklist, we reviewed the academic literature, compiled a list of the 20 most important drivers of engagement, collected original data about what makes employees engaged in the post-Covid era, compared that to what managers predicted would boost their employees’ engagement, and formulated a series of evidence-based recommendations to promote it.
Our findings highlight that the three most important levers managers have at their disposal right now to boost their employees’ engagement are to (a) help employees connect what they do to what they care about, (b) make the work itself less stressful and more enjoyable, and (c) reward employees with additional time off, in addition to financial incentives.
However, as we found in a follow-up study involving 302 managers, leaders are often not aware of what is most important for driving employee engagement. The levers leaders think are most important do not correspond to what is actually most important. The mismatch between what leaders think their employees need versus what they actually need is further evidence that practitioners require guidance on what will work most effectively to engage their employees.
Translating Science into Practice
In the academic literature, employee engagement includes four elements and can be thought of as the degree to which an employee:
- Feels committed to an organization
- Identifies with an organization
- Feels satisfied with their job
- Feels energized at work
These tend to be measured by asking employees to complete a self-report scale (e.g., “How committed are you to your organization?”). We have posted our measure of employee engagement in a public repository for interested readers to download and use.
Academic researchers have been investigating issues central to employee engagement for over half a century, including how it can be improved. In 2020 alone, more than 1,500 academic articles were published on the topic of engagement. For management practitioners and consultants keen on taking an evidence-based approach, this can be an overwhelming amount of knowledge to distill. How can all these insights be applied correctly?
To answer these questions, we recruited a sample of 395 U.S. professionals and measured our exhaustive list of engagement drivers and their level of reported engagement at two time points (one week apart) during April and May 2021. From the list of the 20 most influential engagement drivers identified by prior management theory, our results and checklist highlight the three most critical ones.
The Employee Engagement Checklist
1. connect what employees do to what they care about..
Consider the following three actions:
Revise your organization’s mission statement to connect with employee values. Employees are more likely to feel they fit at an organization that stands for social change. Studies show that people are willing to give up financial benefits to work for an organization that practices corporate social and environmental responsibility.
If your organization’s mission is to become the industry leader and nothing more, then it will be difficult for employees’ goals and values — which are likely about the individual’s aspirations, not the organization’s — to fit in. On the other hand, if your organization’s mission is to have some societal impact (such as Airbnb’s “create a world where you can belong anywhere”), then it’s easier for employees to align their goals and values with the organization’s mission and thus feel that they fit in.
Show how an employee’s work is related to the organization’s purpose. A purposeful mission is not sufficient to establish feelings of value alignment. Employees have to see a connection between their day-to-day work and the organization’s greater purpose.
Job crafting , which entails using imagination to redesign one’s job without the involvement of management, is one technique that connects an employee’s everyday work activities with the organization’s purpose. For instance, a hospital cleaner may reframe their work as helping sick people instead of simply cleaning. Or an insurance agent might reframe their work as getting people back on track after an accident rather than processing paperwork.
To deliver job crafting at scale, consider revamping job descriptions to connect an employee’s work directly to the organization’s mission, generating meaning and purpose. Research by McKinsey also suggests that town hall meetings and immersive, small-group sessions are effective at helping employees align their day-to-day work with the organization’s broader mission.
Encourage and fund employee resource groups (ERGs) that represent diverse interests and goals. ERGs are voluntary communities that bring together individuals with similar backgrounds or interests. ERGs could center on diversity and inclusion, special interests, or even wellness (outdoors, exercise, etc.). For example, at KPMG, nearly half of partners and employees are members of at least one ERG, ranging from an African American Network to pride@kpmg. ERGs allow employees to connect with peers who share their values and goals, promoting feelings of value alignment.
2. Make the work itself less stressful and more enjoyable.
Offer employees the flexibility to try new work tasks so they can discover their intrinsic interests. Whether activities are intrinsically interesting likely depends on the individual employee — in other words, the same activity might spark intrinsic motivation for one employee but not for another.
To provide employees the opportunity to determine what sparks their intrinsic interest, consider a job rotation program in which employees move through several positions within a company in a relatively short period of time.
For instance, Dutch beer brewer Heineken has a job rotation program in which college graduates rotate through various departments including packaging, product development, brewing, quality assurance, and packaging development. After completing the program, employees can select and join the department that offers the most promise in igniting their intrinsic interest.
Grant employees more autonomy. Autonomy is critical to fostering intrinsic motivation.
As an example of autonomy in action, Netflix employees operate in an environment of “ no rules ,” characterized by a high degree of employee freedom and responsibility. In terms of freedom, employees make strategic decisions “in Netflix’s best interests” without managerial oversight, do not need to seek pre-approvals for reimbursements, and can take unlimited vacation, which is not tracked. The culture of no rules is sustained through high levels of responsibility, in which all employees are charged with “question[ing] actions [of others] inconsistent with our values.” A culture of freedom and responsibility not only allows employees to pursue ideas they find enjoyable and fun — increasing intrinsic motivation — but is also viewed as essential to Netflix’s ability to continue to innovate as the organization grows in size.
Beyond culture change, even individual contributors (without managerial action) can enhance their sense of autonomy by changing their routine workday. This may be as simple as blocking off time in their schedule to take a jog in the middle of the workday or asking a colleague to work on a new, exciting project.
Boost employees’ sense of confidence. People tend to avoid work tasks they lack the confidence to complete; thus, confidence is important to encourage employees to initiate tasks that are intrinsically pleasing.
To enhance employees’ confidence, consider a mentorship program. For instance, Google managers receive just-in-time emails the Sunday before a new employee starts, which remind them to match new employees with a peer buddy and build their social network. The emails contain academic citations and results from internal studies to persuade managers that peer mentors are critical for success. As a testament to the power of mentorship, Google found that managers who followed the onboarding checklist had team members become fully effective 25% faster than peers whose manager did not follow it.
3. Create time affluence.
Reward employees with time in addition to money. Working hours for college-educated professionals have been increasing for the last 30 years, representing a long-term decline in feelings of time affluence. Thus, rewarding employees with time (e.g., extra time off, paid vacations) on top of money (e.g., cash bonuses, equity) represents a direct route to increasing feelings of time affluence.
The need to reward employees with time is especially important now because the pandemic increased the length of the average workday (an increase of 48.5 minutes per day according to one study ), reducing time for nonwork leisure activities. Moreover, another study revealed that the pandemic’s negative effect on time affluence has been uneven between men and women, with women (especially mothers) reporting less time affluence than men.
One way to reward employees with time involves giving them extra mandatory time off. For instance, in response to pandemic-induced burnout this summer, some organizations like Bumble gave employees an extra week off. Rewarding employees with time is an especially effective way to increase feelings of time affluence and drive employee engagement.
Encourage employees to invest in time-saving purchases. Time-saving purchases (e.g., housecleaning, meal delivery services) enable employees to spend money on products in return for more leisure time, increasing their feelings of time affluence.
Organizations can make it convenient for third-party organizations to sell their products and services directly to their employees. For instance, organizations can partner with tax firms to offer tax preparation services to employees or meal kit delivery services to provide them with partially prepared, healthy food options. Or organizations can partner with concierge services that work with employees to organize services at home (e.g., housecleaning, laundry, errand outsourcing). By making it easier and more convenient for employees to invest in these time-saving purchases, employees can dig themselves out of time debt.
Implement tools that discourage after-hours emails. Employees often report that their email inbox is the largest time drain, so using a tool that allows people to pause the inflow of emails after hours can encourage employees to have more “off” time.
To do this, organizations can — by default — turn off email notifications after hours. If employees are facing something urgent, they can sign into their email if needed. For instance, car manufacturer Volkswagen stops routing emails 30 minutes before the workday ends and starts them again 30 minutes before the workday starts.
In the early stages of the pandemic, managers often relied on emergency appeals to motivate their teams. For example, in March 2020, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote an open letter to employees telling them that “people are depending on [Amazon]” and now is the “most critical” time for employees to perform.
Now, 18 months later, employees’ mental “surge capacity” is likely diminished. Managers to must take proactive steps to increase employee engagement, or risk losing their workforce. Given the many potential levers of employee engagement, the challenge for leaders is to combine theory and data to understand which levers should be prioritized in their workplace context.
- DS Daniel Stein is a fifth-year doctoral student in the Management of Organizations (MORS) Group at UC Berkeley, Haas School of Business. He conducts research on groups and teams, focusing on commitment to one’s group. He studies commitment across multiple levels, ranging from teams to organizations.
- NH Nick Hobson is chief scientist and director of labs for Emotive Technologies , a behavioral technology think tank that brings together leading academic researchers, technologists, and business strategists in order to create and share knowledge. A PhD-trained behavioral scientist and adjunct lecturer at the University of Toronto, Nick’s research and client practice specializes in employee experience (EX) and the influence of behavioral science as a tool for business success.
- Jon M. Jachimowicz is an assistant professor in the Organizational Behavior Unit at the Harvard Business School. He received his PhD in management from Columbia Business School. He studies how people pursue their passion for work, how they perceive passion in others, and how leaders and organizations seek to manage for passion.
- Ashley Whillans is an assistant professor in the negotiations, organizations, and markets unit at the Harvard Business School School and teaches the “Negotiations” and “Motivation and Incentives” courses to MBA students and executives. Her research focuses on the role of noncash rewards on engagement and the links between time, money, and happiness. She is the author of Time Smart: How to Reclaim Your Time & Live a Happier Life (Harvard Business Review, 2020).
Engagement Strategy Plan: The 5 Step Process
If you have a strategy, then you need employee engagement strategies. Why? Because the cornerstone of any successful strategy is people. However, getting them engaged in what you want to achieve might be a little harder than you think.
In fact, a lack of engagement in strategy is the number one reason we identified for strategic failure. Having been on countless strategy implementation teams, I can't tell you how often I've seen this happen:
The CEO/leadership team is crazy excited about the new strategic plan....
...there aren't any obvious signs of disengagement when the plan is presented to people throughout the organization...
...but 3 months later, nothing has really changed and everyone is pretty much going about business as usual.
Most of the time, this occurs when the leadership team became overly focused on the content of the strategy. The team doesn't give enough thought to just how hard it will be to get people on board.
The larger the organization, the more of a challenge this becomes. We see this the most with 'new' CEOs who arrive into their roles full of great intentions and excitement.
CEO's who perhaps don't fully understand the organizational challenges. Nothing takes the wind out of their sails more than when people don't get behind their new ideas.
The answer to this problem isn't easy - often it goes to the root of the culture of the organization. But there's one huge thing you can do to stack the odds in favor of your new strategy. That's to take the time to create your strategic engagement plan.
What is an Engagement Strategy Plan?
A strategic engagement plan walks you through a series of steps that start before you begin brainstorming ideas for your strategy. It also outlines clearly what you will do and when. This will allow you to maximize the chances of your new strategy being embraced by the organization.
There are 5 key sections to a strategic engagement plan:
- Cascading Strategy
- Strategy Communications Plan
- Combining Strategy & Business As Usual
- Celebrating Success
The steps must be completed in order, I can't stress enough the need to start at the beginning of your strategic planning process. The reason is that a huge part of driving engagement in your strategy requires you to involve people in creation.
You won't necessarily distribute your strategic engagement plan to the entire organization, but you should involve your leadership team in its creation.
Let's dive into the key sections of your strategic engagement plan and how to put them together...
The first part of your strategic engagement plan should address involving people. Specifically, how you're actually going to go about involving people from throughout your organization in your strategic planning process. By involving people early on, you're much more likely to get buy-in to your goals .
There's a fine line of course between genuinely involving people in ideation vs simply paying lip service to their ideas and then doing what you were going to do anyway. It's fine to have a rough idea of your vision (as a leader, that's absolutely part of your role) but you need to be open-minded enough to the ideas that come your way as part of this process.
1.1 Identify your stakeholders
Start off by figuring out who the stakeholders are that you want to involve in the planning process. Think broadly and don't forget that many of those stakeholders might be outside your organization (shareholders, friends, and family, etc).
Make a list of the stakeholders different internally and externally to keep track of whether you've effectively involved them.
1.2 Meet with them
Arrange a series of workshops with each stakeholder group. In the workshop, outline your overall vision and explain to them why you value their input.
You should also detail how specifically you would like them to contribute to the planning process. Prepare a series of questions for these meetings to tease out the key points you'd like their contribution on. Things like:
- What do you think our strengths and weaknesses as an organization are?
- Can you identify any opportunities and threats you see for us?
- What do you think we should focus on over the next 5 years?
- Are there any organizations in our space that you really admire? Why?
Be sure to actively engage with each stakeholder group. Write notes from each meeting and send out a summary afterward by email. This will help you reflect on what they've said, and proves that you were genuinely listening to their ideas.
1.3 Reflect on the feedback in your plan
You'll almost certainly get some valuable ideas by implementing this part of your strategic engagement plan. Be sure to reflect those ideas in your strategic plan, then circle back with your stakeholders to show them their feedback was incorporated.
If someone has an idea that you're not able to incorporate, it's fine to be upfront with them about that. Let the person know why you decided against incorporating their feedback. Most likely they'll appreciate the fact that you listened and gave due consideration to their ideas, even if you didn't implement them on this occasion.
2. Cascading Strategy
Let's assume you've successfully completed your strategic planning process (we've written tons of content on that subject, so check out this guide if you need more help with actually creating your strategic plan).
The reality is that your plan will still be fairly high level at this stage. To operationalize your plan, you're going to need to cascade it throughout your organization.
Cascading strategy essentially means taking the high level elements from your strategic plan and assigning them to key people, then working with those people to develop them into more detailed goals. These people then in turn cascade their goals to their teams.
2.1 Delegate high level goals
You should assign a key member of your leadership team against each of the high-level goals in your plan. This will likely be an easy process since most strategies revolve around goals that relate to typical business areas such as marketing, sales, etc.
Part of the process should be to ask them to work with their own teams to flesh out that particular component of the plan and then present back that work to the rest of the leadership team.
A great tactic here is to ask them to actually go and create their own 'sub-plan' for their team that breaks the high level goal into a number of smaller focus areas, which link back to the high level goal in the main strategic plan.
\This gives a strong sense of empowerment around owning their own strategy, rather than simply owning a deliverable on the main strategy.
2.2 Present back & iterate
Once each team member has created a strategic plan of their own to deliver their component of the main plan, have them present it to the leadership team. Use this opportunity to review and iterate each team member's understanding of the main plan. You'll want to ensure each team member understands how their goals align back to the original strategic vision.
Depending on the size of your organization, you may need to repeat this process of strategy cascading several times. This will ensure that literally everyone in the organization gets involved to some degree. The best strategic engagement plans are the ones that are 100% inclusive.
That doesn't mean that you have to be involved personally in every round of strategy cascade. You can leave that with your managers and trust them to ensure that alignment to the overall vision remains intact.
3. Strategy Communications Plan
The third part of your strategic engagement plan involves the creation of a communications plan. This is where you take your strategy on the road and start to whip up some excitement throughout the organization.
3.1 Stakeholder communication
Remember the list of stakeholders that you drew up in step 1.1? It's time revisit that list, except this time we're going to figure out a series of mini-plans for how we're going to communicate the strategy to them, and what outcomes we want to achieve from doing so.
By defining your outcomes, you'll better structure your messages and communication technique. Here are a few examples:
Stakeholder Group: The board
Desired Outcome: Board members have confidence that the goals are sufficiently ambitious, without being risky. They should be confident that we have the resources to deliver this plan, and that they will be regularly updated on its progress.
When you communicate your plan to this group, you’ll probably end up toning down the hype behind the plan, and focusing on the hard business outcomes.
Stats and specific KPIs will help to demonstrate to this group that you’ve thought deeply about the detail of the plan and can be absolutely trusted to deliver it.
Stakeholder Group: Customers
Desired Outcome: To give inspiration and hope to our customers that they have the made right choice in choosing us as a provider. That they’re doing business with an ambitious, innovative, and progressive company. That they themselves are a valued part of the organization’s current and future success.
Unlike the board communication, you won’t be focusing on detailed numbers or stats. Your language should be much more inspirational and motivational. Even though you’re communicating the same plan, your delivery is going to be very different!
It may seem obvious that you’ll deliver differently to different groups, but take the time to plan out your messaging for each one anyway – when you’re up there in front of people, that extra little preparatory step will be 100% worth it.
3.2 Wow factor
Don’t let the hard work you've put into your plan go to waste by delivering it with a boring PowerPoint presentation! And worse still, DO NOT deliver a new strategic plan over email.
The benefit of spending a little extra time and money on delivery is centered on one inescapable fact. If your people see that you’ve invested in this new strategic plan, they’ll take it so much more seriously.
When we work with clients in our cloud strategy tool Cascade , we try to encourage them to record videos . We ask clients to record videos focusing on the key elements of the plan (the vision statement, the focus areas, etc).
Those videos then become a key component of the delivery (i.e. they’re played on a big screen at the launch event).
But, they also become a reference point for new employees joining the company to understand what their new organization is all about. A strategy map helps employees to feel engaged because it visualizes the strategy, enabling them to see where they fit into the overall plan.
If you are using a cloud strategy tool for the first time, that in itself will give you brownie points as something new and innovative.
Here are a few more tips and ideas to bring your plan to life:
- Hire an animator or graphic designer to create cartoons for your focus areas ( one of our clients based in South Africa did a great job of this using safari animals to represent their focus areas – The Lion (Financial Growth), The Giraffe (Innovation), etc. )
- Arrange a fun launch party that is solely dedicated to the launch of the strategy (don’t tack it on to some other event, that sends a BAD signal about its importance.)
- Invest in some of those cheesy but surprisingly effective desk toys , branded with your new vision/focus areas
3.3 Follow through
It's so easy to go big on the launch of your strategy, and then just go back to business as usual right afterward (more on that later). From a communications perspective, one of the best things you can do is ask some follow-up questions about how people thought the launch went with each of your stakeholder groups. You could do this in-person or via a survey for larger organizations.
If there were certain aspects of the strategy that people didn't quite understand, be sure to arrange follow-up sessions to address those concerns in more detail. This is not only incredibly helpful for your people, but it also reinforces how seriously you're taking the launch.
4. Combining Strategy & Business As Usual
One of the hardest things about any new strategy is how it fits in with business as usual (BAU). What I mean by that, is how people juggle executing the new strategy while delivering their day jobs and KPIs.
It's naive to think that people will be able to drop everything they're working on and focus their energy on your shiny new strategy. That's not to say that things shouldn't change under the new strategic plan - but rather that change needs to be realistic and well-managed.
4.1 Incorporate an element of BAU into your strategic plan
Your strategic plan probably won't involve changing every single thing about your organization. That would be to ignore your strengths and the positives of whatever has brought you this far in life. A good tip is to actually account for this as part of your strategic plan.
For example, let's say that your strategic plan includes a major shift towards being more customer-focused. It's likely that you'll already have some KPIs around this area in your team, so build on those KPIs (make them more aggressive perhaps) rather than replacing them completely.
Take a close look at the different projects that are already happening throughout your organization and see if you can blend them into the focus areas you've created for your strategy.
Don't force them in - it's possible that there will be some aspects of your BAU activities that need to cease or change dramatically. But try to find a balance that doesn't involve a total overhaul from the ground up.
4.2 Create your strategic governance
One of the things that should change under your new strategy, is that people need to be talking about the new plan and how their goals are progressing against it. You should absolutely introduce a regime of meetings and reporting that focuses solely on the progress of the strategy.
That should include things like strategy dashboards, dedicated strategy meetings (at least once per quarter), and inclusion of strategy in all team meetings.
4.3 Integrate your business processes
The last thing that you want is for people to view strategy as something additional to their roles. Rather, people need to view their roles themselves as strategic and the goals they're working on should reflect this.
A common issue we see - people allocate strategic goals to their teams, but then maintain a separate process of annual reviews. The annual reviews will instead focus on a different set of goals entirely.
We often see this with clients who are working with legacy HR systems. HR systems that include goal management aspects without clear linkage to strategy.
It's imperative that anything in your organization that relates to goals (think HR systems, goal management systems, KPI tracking tools, etc) has a clear linkage between those goals and the broader strategic plan.
Even if you're not using a dedicated strategy execution platform, you can achieve this (albeit less elegantly) in Excel and through constant reinforcement of those linkages in team meetings and 1:1 sessions with your staff:
"Ok Steve, I see that you've started work on implementing a new CRM system for your team. Which of our strategic focus areas do you think will benefit the most from this project?"
This is another crucial step to proving your commitment to the new strategy and therefore a critical part of creating your strategic engagement plan. What systems will you be integrating and how?
5. Celebrating Success
OK, you've done a load of work so far on creating the perfect strategic engagement plan - now it's time for the fun bit. The last part of the plan involves figuring out how'll be celebrating the success of your new strategy.
I'm not necessarily talking about the ultimate success of achieving your vision statement - that will likely take quite a while. Rather this is about celebrating all of the small wins along the way. These small wins will sustain the energy and focus of you and your people on your strategy.
5.1 Define clear milestones
Strategies tend to span several years - but you can't wait that long to start celebrating success. Instead, define a series of clear milestones (usually linked to the delivery of certain KPIs or major projects) that you'll be celebrating along the way.
You'll want to ensure that these milestones occur at least twice a year and that they are as inclusive as possible. I.e. don't always celebrate sales milestones along, as this will likely not be engaging to many of your operational staff. Balance the celebratory milestones across the different focus areas of your strategic plan.
5.2 Splash out
Yep, this is one of those times when you might have to spend a little bit of money! We're not talking extravagant, though you should absolutely think about holding a team event/party for each of your milestones.
The actual event should be different each time (don't let them get repetitive). It might be something as intimate as a team lunch (for smaller teams) to all-out venue hire where appropriate. Include a budget for these celebrations in your strategic engagement plan.
5.3 Link reward to strategic success
Linking reward to strategic success covers somewhat similar ground to step 4.3. Make sure there's a clear link between the reward and remuneration your people receive and the success of the strategy.
Reward and remuneration can be addressed on two levels. Firstly, ensure the goals people own (the one they're measured against typically annually) line up against the organization's strategic plan. So, if people deliver the goals they own, the organization's strategy succeeds and people get rewarded for it.
This creates a clear linkage in their minds between the strategy and their own internal drivers. Secondly, it's worth considering some kind of company-wide bonus scheme to reward everyone when certain milestones of the strategy are delivered.
As part of your strategic engagement plan, you need to figure out how this reward is going to be structured and much money you plan to invest in it.
As you can see, there's a fair bit of work involved in creating your strategic engagement plan. You'll be tempted to skip to the ideation phase of creating your strategy, but don't forget the famous statistic that over 70% of strategic plans fail . If I then told you that lack of engagement was the number one reason behind these failures.
Hopefully, that's enough to persuade you that creating a good strategic engagement plan could be the difference between success and failure for your organization. To help, we've created the free downloadable strategic engagement plan toolkit attached to this article.
Download it and start working on your own plan asap. Don't forget to check out Cascade, our strategy execution platform which will also help you with the majority of the steps outlined above.
Top-Down Vs. Bottom-Up Approach: A Comprehensive Guide
10 Free Implementation Plan Templates And Examples
12 Popular KPI Software Tools To Connect & Visualize Your Data (2023 Guide)
11 best reporting tools & software to drive strategy (2023 guide), your toolkit for strategy success.