Playful Employees Draw Customers Nearer and Keep Them Coming Back

Hilary Pritchett Employee Experience Leave a Comment

Evidence shows that customers sense joy and passion in a company’s employees, and this, more than any marketing gimmicks, draws them nearer. Naturally, business owners and managers want to seize the opportunity.

The tensile strength between efficiency and creativity is what keeps organizations fresh, but solid; dynamic, but stable. Under the milieu of creativity, imagination reigns. Employees enjoy freedom and autonomy in how they complete tasks. Here is where the artistic, B-Types thrive. They enjoy the opportunity to improvise, act on instinct and indulge impulses for new, fun ideas. Job roles are flexible and hierarchies, pliable or non-existent.

Under the milieu of efficiency, practicality reigns. Structure and processes rule operations. Those who prefer rules and schedules will do well in organizations strong in these areas. Roles are fixed, employee time is strictly controlled, and people are held accountable for results. Incompetence is not tolerated. Employees are expected to accept constructive criticism and responsibility for their actions.

The ability of an organization to maintain healthy tension between the two is a measure of resiliency. Strong leaders will recognize the value in both forces and find ways for each to enhance the other. Workplace play does not live on either side.

Efficiency can result from fun activities – think about kids who count their toys or sing or compete with a sibling as they put them back into the toy chest during clean-up. The play wards off boredom and laziness, while at the same time, quickening the step. The same can be true of adult activities. If we make them interesting in some way, we can be more efficient in completing them.

For instance, cooking is a repetitive task that becomes exhausting for chefs and sous chefs. If you eat at a Mongolian or teppanyaki restaurant you will often observe the cooks at the grill calling out to each other, laughing, and making jokes. They are making a repetitive task more interesting, and therefore, more efficient.

Plus, it entertains and beguiles the customers.

It’s entirely possible that these styles of cooking came about long ago when people wanted to make cooking an entertaining part of the meal for everyone. Some clever Mongol chef was having fun with his tools and rather than stand around hungry, waiting for dinner to be ready, Genghis’s hungry, overwrought soldiers gathered round to watch. It probably helped them forget how hungry they were for the hour it took to prepare! And as the Japanese culture was prone to do, they observed the phenomenon, shrewdly recognized its cleverness, and later developed their own version: teppanyaki, a post WWII style of cooking that appealed to foreign visitors to Japan.

Observe these chefs in action – sometimes they dramatically sharpen their knives or pull a pepper grinder out of a holster as if it was a Colt 45. They might build a volcano out of the rings of a big sliced onion, which is entertaining for the guests, and probably thrilling for the chef, who enjoys showing off his skill with a blade.

I used to take my boys to a sushi place with a train at the bar. The miniature train was fun enough for the boys, but if the place wasn’t too busy, the chef would also send us little paper origami cranes throughout the meal. When the train came trundling around the bend, each crane was smaller than the last, until the final one, which was smaller than a fingertip. This was absolutely spellbinding for the boys, and allowed their mother to eat in peace while enjoying the laughter of her children. I always tipped that man with every extra dollar I had – his understanding of the use of play in his business had enormous value for me as a customer. For a chef in a demanding business, I suspect it also made a long, late night in the restaurant pass more quickly.

These examples represent introducing play to a workplace without compromising anything on the efficiency side of the equation.

The cooking still gets done, even if the chefs are enjoying themselves. In fact, it gets done faster, with more flair. The entertaining aspects of the food preparation do not affect the quality of the meal, and make the experience of eating in that restaurant more valuable than at the traditional eatery next door. The origami cranes were quick to whip up and didn’t cost the restaurant too much – at least the tips probably offset the expense of the paper. The activities are initiated by the employees, as opposed to dictated by managers, so the employees derive creative satisfaction without compromising their deliverable.

Enterprise Rent-a-Car, global vehicle rental provider, is an excellent example of a company with a play-like, employee-centric strategy. Plus, their employees are playful.

Enterprise’s mission statement is not what you might expect. “Exceed our customers expectations,” and “best service provider” don’t appear until the second and third lines. The first line of their mission is: “to provide our employees with a great place to work.” This is not because Enterprise is willing to sacrifice customer satisfaction to make employees happy – quite the contrary. It’s because Enterprise understands that these two things are not mutually exclusive.

Enterprise knows that if their employees, who work closely with their customers in detailed face-to-face interactions every day, work in a nurturing, pleasant environment in which their work experience is crafted to be personally rewarding, the employees will be pleasant with customers. 

Richard Branson is quoted as saying: customers don’t come first. Employees do. Take care of your employees and they will take care of your customers.

Enterprise uses unique language on their web site that provides clues to their work environment, using words like “care” and “family.” In addition to that, they have employee testimonials on the site. We get to hear directly from employees what it’s like to work for Enterprise. Enterprise employees report feeling deeply satisfied with their work experience for a variety of reasons, many of which are part of a playful environment.

If you visit an Enterprise location to engage their services, you will probably notice the authentic joy the team seems to exude. They will banter playfully with one another and with customers. I’ve noticed this at dozens of locations and you’ll discover few exceptions to that rule on customer testimonial sites. Especially when you’ve just got off three back-to-back, connecting flights and you just want your car so you can get to your hotel and go to sleep, their pleasantness will make all the difference.

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