From the February 1997 issue of Entrepreneur

When you think of marketing, you probably think of ads, brochures, newsletters and other tangible means of getting your message out. But there's another important way of spreading your marketing message: your employees.

Your employees are ambassadors of your business, representing it to the community and the customer. That can be good or bad. Consider this example:

The other day I stopped at a local video rental store. I had called earlier to reserve a movie my son needed to see for a class he was taking. But when I got to the counter and asked for the movie, a fellow with "Dave" on his name tag told me it had already been checked out.

Needless to say, I was not happy. I told him I had spoken with a young man named Sean, who assured me there would be no problem holding the movie for up to eight hours. Naturally, Sean was nowhere to be found, and no one else was aware of my request.

Just as I was about to lose my ties to civilized behavior, a young woman stepped forward. Her name was Carrie, she looked about 17, and she was not wearing the word "manager" anywhere on her name tag. Nevertheless, she displayed maturity and wisdom beyond her years, as she quickly said, "I'll check our records and find out when the next copy is due in, and we'll call our other store across town to be certain you get one before we close tonight. Let me be sure we have the right phone number so we can reach you when it comes in. Also, because you were inconvenienced, here is a coupon for a free movie rental any time this month."

Now, I don't know if Carrie was trained to act this way, or if she was simply told to do whatever it takes to satisfy the customer. All I know is that she did exactly the right thing as far as I was concerned: She listened and responded quickly.

The word "empowered" gets tossed around a lot these days. And while a teenager working in a video store may not exemplify the image typically associated with employee empowerment, that's exactly what she was--empowered to act on behalf of the manager, the store and the company to satisfy the customer. Her behavior was worth its weight in Milk Duds because it practically guarantees I will continue to do business with that video store--and will probably tell at least 10 other people what a good experience I had.

Diplomatic Advantages

While volumes have been written on the value of customer service as a marketing strategy, articles on the importance of employees as company ambassadors are scarce. Yet who tells your company story better than your employees? Who lives your company philosophy more constantly than your employees? And who is out there promoting and pitching your products and services more frequently than your employees?

Ambassadors play a vital role in representing one country to another when the president, premier, prime minister or monarch can't be there in person. In many ways, your employees should be considered high-ranking diplomats representing your company. They should be able to act on your behalf and bridge the physical gap between you and your clients or customers. They can display the same diplomacy you would when a disagreement surfaces and can act as gracious hosts when greeting your clients, just as you would if you were there. After all, what good is it to reach out to prospects and entice them into your store or office if, after they arrive, they aren't treated like royalty?

Giving employees some flexibility in handling problems that arise on the job benefits your business in several ways. Research has shown that employees who have this kind of freedom begin to think more strategically about their work and about your business. They endear themselves to your customers because they act as customer advocates. They go beyond satisfying needs to exceed expectations. And because they are thoroughly familiar with your company's product or service, the company philosophy, the state of the industry, and the ins and outs of good business practices, such employees can "sell" your business again and again, giving you a competitive advantage.

Many surveys have found the main reason people stop doing business with a company is because they were treated with indifference. Perhaps you, personally, don't treat your customers with indifference, but have you made it clear to your employees how important personal service is to everyone's future?

If not, don't blame your staff for not being good company ambassadors. They need to know what is expected of them, how much personal discretion they can use, and what the rewards might be.

Making A Difference

Among the most important qualities customers look for in a business are courteous treatment, prompt and knowledgeable service, a positive attitude, integrity and credibility, and whether their needs are satisfied. Do your employees score high in all these areas? If not, how do you go about grooming your employees for service in the "diplomatic corps"?

Start by letting them in on some "company intelligence" about what turns customers off:

1. The waiting game. Long lines or inattentive clerks won't do. Nor will service counters with "Next window, please" placards on all but one station.

2. The zombie. These workers seem to be in a trance or heavily sedated. They don't make eye contact or act with a sense of urgency; they just go through the motions.

3. The antagonist. Customers are not the enemy, but frequently they are made to feel as if they are. When customers sense they are merely a transaction--or, worse, an interruption--they rarely return. Employee rudeness, impatience and judgmental remarks occur far too frequently, and nothing is more damaging to your company image.

4. The bare minimum. When an employee won't go the extra mile to satisfy a customer or seems annoyed by questions or requests, customers vanish, never to be seen again.

5. The know-nothing. Workers who are poorly trained and can't answer questions about your product or service are useless to you and your customers. Few things are more disappointing than when a company representative knows less about the product than the customer.

6. The liar. Lies, dishonesty, snow jobs and broken promises may get an employee off the hook for the moment, but in the long run they lose your company lots of business.

Once employees know what not to do, you need to show them what they should do. The first and most important step is to treat them with respect. If you don't, it will be very hard for employees to believe you will really support them when they start acting empowered.

Employees can tell if you don't trust them to make decisions on your behalf. So take time to assess the situation, spell out exactly what behavior you are looking for, and prepare your people to act responsibly on their own. This means:


  • making sure employees at all levels thoroughly understand your products, services, ongoing promotions, company policies and key customer arrangements.


  • seeing to it that all employees have the resources needed to do their jobs.


  • assuring your employees that (after proper training) they will be supported in using their judgment when quick action is needed to satisfy a customer.


  • including your employees in decisions about certain aspects of company policy and how they handle their own specific duties.


  • cross-training employees so they can fill in for each other when necessary.


  • instructing your staff in the basics of customer service and social interaction. Smiling comfortably, making small talk and listening attentively don't necessarily come naturally.


  • showing your employees by example how to handle a typical judgment call and leading discussions
    on how to solve problems or manage troublesome or unusual situations.

Quick Rewards

Any ambassador worth his or her salt has to be completely loyal to his or her country--er, company--and unabashedly committed to promoting its products or services. Ask your employees, "Would you buy our product or service?" Better yet, ask them if they would recommend your company to their family and friends.

If they say no, you've got a problem. Why should customers use your products or services if your own employees are not willing to buy them? If your people lack confidence in your business, you need to find out why and take corrective action.

Imagine the positive impact when employees are proud to use your products. They will naturally encourage others to become customers and can do so with genuine conviction.

Finally, reward your employees for their ambassadorial service in a timely and visible fashion. If their behavior is not supported and rewarded, change will never take place. Try these ideas:


*Handwrite a thank-you note to the employee, being specific about what they did that particularly impressed you.


  • Offer them opportunities for additional training and development.


  • Seek out their opinions and ideas. Let them be "in" on things.


  • Acknowledge them publicly in newsletters or articles.


  • Offer monetary or benefit bonuses when possible.


  • Have the especially good ambassadors train others in your organization. Give them leadership opportunities and lots of feedback.

When you identify important values for your employees, guide them through the problem-solving process, open your company to change, and allow plenty of time for them to feel comfortable in the role of ambassador, you will reap the benefits of a marketing concept whose surface has only been scratched.

Leann Anderson is the owner of Anderson Business Resources, a Greeley, Colorado, company specializing in customer service, marketing and high-tech etiquette. E-mail her at landerson@ctos.com.