The customer comes first - if your employees are properly motivated!

Author - Nicholas Vinther Skov. Head of CX Advisory

I was in the middle of observing the staff at a Waitrose supermarket in London. On Gloucester Road. That's where I left you in my last blog post. Carrying around a half-empty shopping basket, I observed how the employees spoke to each other about the day's tasks, helped each other across specializations and generally seemed focused and motivated.

That was exactly why I was at Waitrose that day. I had to see for myself what Alistair Boot from Waitrose had talked to us about the day before at a customer experience conference in a time-worn Hilton Hotel. When Alistair Boot speaks, people listen. He stands there speaking calmly, precisely, simply and with respect for the colleagues he wants to inspire to give customers a good experience. In his own humble words: "I'm a customer lead at Waitrose, not the customer lead."

According to Boot, "the customer is the first thing on the agenda". These are not empty words. In the years 2007-2015, they have topped the English market in customer satisfaction. Waitrose is a high-end supermarket, similar to Danish Irma. Bright, simple and inviting - and the first thing I noticed when I walked in was not a discount sign. It was a large information sign explaining what they want to do forme, the customer.


Waitrose is part of the John Lewis Partnership (JLP). Some of JLP's success is often attributed to the fact that it's "employee owned". Every employee is considered a partner. And there are 88,700 of them! Annual bonuses for all employees corresponding to a month's pay are not uncommon. The reasoning seems logical enough: The employees work harder because in the end they benefit financially. But I believe that reasoning is flawed.

I believe the employees can see that they are part of something bigger. They are motivated to be there for the customers, because they feel a mutual sense of responsibility.They feel a sense of purpose in what they do. The financial benefit is a welcome outcome. But it is not the most important motivator. I don't believe that.

And why don't I believe it? Well, there's a lot of research and data suggesting that something else besides (just) money motivates us to do our best.


Two former McKinsey consultants, Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor, has written an interesting book in which they introduce the concept of ToMo. Total Motivation. They think motivation is created - or destroyed - by a number of direct and indirect motivators.

  • The direct motivators are the three Ps: "Purpose, Play & Potential". The sense of meaning, purpose and the autonomy/freedom to influence your work as well as the opportunity to develop professionally.
  • The indirect motivators are: "Economic Pressure, Emotional Pressure & Inertia". Pay, short-sighted sales bonus targets and, worst of all, inertia - we do things the way we always have, because... we just do. 

The indirect motivators are often counterproductive: Economic pressure and threats tend to have a negative impact on employee performance and consequently on the customer experience.

In contrast, the direct motivators result in a high degree of ToMo. Doshi and McGregor demonstrate an (almost) perfect linear link between ToMo and customer satisfaction. This is very clear in the American retail sector, where Whole Foods (similar to Waitrose) leads the pack in both employee ToMo and customer satisfaction.

They show similar correlations in the bank, airline and consumer electronics sectors.

At Ennova, we've observed the exact same pattern. We've conducted countless studies that demonstrate a clear link between customer satisfaction and employee motivation. In several studies, Daniel Pink has demonstrated that employees want autonomy, purpose and mastery. And when we test this hypothesis, we get the same result - with purpose being particularly important.


According to Doshi and McGregor, it all starts with leadership. Management that promotes motivated, high-performing employees and that strikes a balance betweentactical and adaptive leadership:

  • Tactical leadership is how good you are at executing  procedures, plans and strategic goals.
  • Adaptive leadership is how good you are at diverging  from them when needed.

Why is it necessary to master both types of leadership? The military calls this the ability to handle VUCA: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. In short: No plan can take everything into account. Customers differ, markets differ. And nobody can control outside circumstances like political events, climate change and new technology. The list of sources of VUCA is long.

I admit that this may all seem pretty theoretical. Alistair Boot and his colleagues have probably never heard of Doshi and McGregor's theory - it is, after all, quite new. But even so, they are living it in practice, for as Boot says: "Leadership is the most fundamental factor for success of customer experience".

Waitrose does adaptive leadership well. The employees have the freedom to work together to create good customer experiences in the individual supermarkets. However, Waitrose (and JLP in general) is also criticized for being somewhat old fashioned and overly bureaucratic at times.

But perhaps this simply proves that they have found a good balance between adaptive and tactical leadership? After visiting Waitrose, I went to several of their supermarket competitors. Inertia is probably the best way to describe what I observed. Routine work, zero involvement and no indication that the employees like their jobs. I don't blame them at all. If an indirect motivator like (low) pay is the only thing to get them out of bed in the morning, thenthe leadership has failedin my view. For I feel certain that they have thousands of employees who would prefer to feel like they are making a difference for the customers.


I've spent enough time in London in this blog, so my next trip will take me back to my homeland, Denmark. On the subject of travel, I want to talk about some new research based on experiments conducted at an airline suggesting it may actually be a good idea to immunize your customers against bad customer experiences. Is it possible? And is it legal? I'll answer these questions and more in my next blog post.

Nicholas Vinther Skov. Head of CX Advisory

Nicholas Vinther Skov. Head of CX Advisory

Nicholas provides fact-based consulting to his customers on improving the customer experience. With his never-ending drive, Nicholas seeks out, discovers and picks up on the latest trends within his field – and shares this knowledge with the world in this blog.