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Jeff Tobe has been called “The Guru of Creative Thinking” by Insider Magazine, and readers of Convention & Meetings Magazine chose him as “one of the top fifteen speakers in North America” on a list that includes Anderson Cooper, Condoleezza Rice, and Daniel Pink. He is the author of the books Coloring Outside the Lines and ANTICIPATE: Knowing What Customers Need Before They Do. Jeff is also the co-author of the best-selling books The Sales Coach and The Communication Coach. He is the creator of many systems of training and learning around his pillars of engagement.

He is also the co-author of the best-selling books The Sales Coach and The Communication Coach. Tobe is one of the most dynamic speakers in the world as attested to by his clients who include IRS, Microsoft, Chrysler-Daimler, Pepsi Cola, PNC Bank, the Internal Revenue Service, and many others. Jeff believes in the power of creativity in business. He asserts that the most important touchpoint for business today is the internal and external customers experience, from the minute they make contact with your organization to the minute they are done. He is also the creator of ACX, the Associate of Customer Experience, online certification program. 

In this interview, Jeff shares his four pillars of engagement, why he thinks experience is a better framework than “service” or even “engagement,” how employees are also customers, and how to overcome the BTTWWADI syndrome.


Michael Lee 

How do you get a topic like employee experience and innovation to be that desirable among people who are looking for speakers?

Jeff Tobe 

You know, it’s funny, I kind of fell into it. Coloring Outside the Lines is not only the name of my book, it’s the name of my company, it’s my brand. And I originally talked about being more creative in business, period. I kind of fell into the speaking business, believe it or not, twenty-nine years ago, and then I realized that it wasn’t applicable, I wasn’t telling people how to use it, I was just telling them how to be more creative and innovative. So I went back to school, got my Master’s degree, and really focused on what I call the customer experience. That’s really the umbrella.

So I talk about creative thinking as it applies to the customer experience by getting your people more engaged in what they do every day. So when I’m keynoting, I touch on all three, it’s fairly shallow, I guess, in an hour. But I also do training, and then I do long-term consulting as well. It’s all based around customer experience, of which employee engagement is a huge part of it.

Michael Lee 

Why is engagement such a huge topic? Why do people care so much about it?

Jeff Tobe 

Oh, my gosh, because you know, it’s kind of the buzzword, at least it is here in the States. And I should say, it’s everywhere I travel in the world. Why? Because I think that people are finally waking up to the idea that it’s not good enough just to have a satisfied employee, Gallup organization does a poll every year worldwide on employee engagement. In the US last year, they said that 33% of Americans are engaged in what they do every day. 33% is pathetic. It’s one of the lowest in the world. So I say, Don’t confuse employee satisfaction with employee engagement. Employee satisfaction simply means that, you know, 67% of employees are going to work to get their paycheck. And they’re happy to get their paycheck. They’ll even tell you, I love working here. They’re just not engaged.

And what we proved especially in my last book, Anticipate: Knowing What Customers Need Before They Do, we prove without a shadow of a doubt that the more engaged people are internally, the better the experience externally. By doing that research, I finally got an AHA! What if the companies and organizations I’m working with focused internally, instead of just focusing on the customer experience externally? Worldwide, there’s a movement to get employees more engaged. And there are pillars of engagement we can use.

Michael Lee 

What are some of the techniques that people should use to get employees more engaged?

Jeff Tobe 

Fear! No, just kidding. You know, we can talk about motivation. I believe that engagement starts at the bottom and works its way up. It doesn’t start with management and come down and that’s the biggest mistake that I see organizations of any kind and any size making. What can we do to get people more engaged at a grassroots level?

Very simply, the first thing I talk about is touchpoints. A touchpoint is any opportunity we have to influence the customer experience. So what it means is taking an easel with paper and some markers and saying, Do people know what are our touchpoints on any given day? If it’s just your team, what are your team’s touchpoints?

If it’s the entire organization, what are the organization’s touchpoints? 

At first, it’s like pulling teeth, you’re going to hear things about marketing – our website is a touchpoint, our business card that we hand somebody is a touchpoint. But you need it to go further. And then I give an example, I’ll say, Well, if somebody pulls up outside your office and can’t find a parking spot, that’s a touchpoint. I come in to use the men’s room, and it’s dirty, that’s a touchpoint. And once they get that, writing them down, you’re going to end up with about twenty to thirty touchpoints. 

Then take a break, say to your team, all right, you’re on the honor system, come up and put a checkmark beside the top five priority touchpoints in the organization. And then bite your tongue as a manager, as a leader. It’s amazing what now happens, they’ll pick the top five. Then find out who owns each of those top five touchpoints. So the men’s room is dirty – who owns it? Who owns the touchpoint the men’s room, and maybe your maintenance staff owns it, then say, Okay, how do we improve? Or how do we tweak or make better this one little touchpoint called maintenance? And get their ideas. Now they’ve got accountability, they’ve got ownership. 

And by tweaking those five – and five is not a magic number, I use five, but it could be seven, it could be ten – but by tweaking those little touchpoints, it will completely change the external customer experience. 

Michael Lee

You have something you call the four pillars of engagement. 

Jeff Tobe

The first is commitment.

And what I mean is committment to the customer experience. I like to say that there’s a big difference between customer service and customer experience. People have to understand that most organizations with whom I’ve worked, and I’ve worked in forty-seven countries with over a hundred thousand people, and I have to tell you that customer service is kind of ingrained in their mentality. I do a lot of work in healthcare and patient experience. It comes from the heart. Customer services from the heart: What can I do for you? How can I help you?

But it’s no longer a differentiating factor in the marketplace. Anybody’s competitors will tell me they’re great at customer service. When you make the leap to customer experience, it means stepping back and asking yourself, What is my customer’s experience from the minute they make contact with me till the minute they’re done? The end-to-end customer experience? That involves so many more people than just one person, How can I help you?

The other added benefit, what we’re talking about the umbrella of engagement, it gets people more engaged. You’ve got somebody who’s sitting at a computer all day, Michael, and they’re going to be rah rah customer service, I never even talked to the customer, or that’s somebody else’s job, customer service. But now you say to that person, you know what, you are an integral part of the end-to-end customer experience, people become a little more engaged, because they understand their role in that end-to-end experience. 

The second pillar is accountability.

One of the things, and this is universal, I used to think it was just North American, but I find that accountability at work is a huge topic and we could talk about it all day. But if we could at least get people at work to be accountable for their actions, for what they say and do, we’ll find that they’ll be more engaged in what they do. 

The third pillar is what I call curiosity.

When I work with an organization, one on one, the first thing I tell them is, one of my goals is to make your organization more curious. And they look at me like I’m out of my mind. What I’m talking about is exactly what you do, and what I do. And that is be more creative, more innovative. But I use curiosity because I put it at a very basic level, if I can get everybody in the organization out looking for examples of how other organizations are engaging their employees, how other organizations are being creative, and bring it back to our organization, massage it a little bit, then that’s what I call being curious.

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. And most people, as you know, you know, when they hear innovation, when they hear creativity, they’re thinking, Oh oh, pie-in-the-sky creativity, and it’s not it, I call it research and development. But it’s really just stealing other ideas as well: I had a great experience at a restaurant I went to last night, what was it about that experience that made it great? Let’s bring those things back into the organization. 

And the fourth pillar is communication.

It’s probably the biggest. When I do a survey, pre-pre-consultation survey, with my clients, communication – I am making this up but probably – comes up ninety percent of the time that it’s one of the biggest challenges they have. And when I ask an organization about it, they can’t tell me. And so there’s an oxymoron there, because it’s about communication. So it really is about engaging your employees at a point where there’s more communication at every level of the organization. It’s almost a flat organization not a silo or top to bottom.

Michael Lee 

When we look at these four pillars, they seem pretty straightforward. They seem like things that any organization sensibly would want to practice.

Jeff Tobe 

Well doesn’t it go back to their culture? That’s the bottom line. I say culture, and the hair on the back of my neck kind of stands up, because I go to an organization, I say, I don’t want to change your culture, how old is your organization? Well, it’s seventy-five years old. Why would I change your culture? Even though we blame culture for employees not being engaged. 

I think culture is the past.

That’s why we have a rear-view mirror, you know, it’s important, we can still look at it. But the windshield is climate. And just like outside, anywhere in the world, the climate’s always changing, the climate in an organization is always changing. If we look at how do we make small changes to the client, the current climate right now, that’s where the changes happen. Yes, they are very basic. But it would surprise you. When I use them, a lot of organizations are still going, Really, accountability? Wow! They hadn’t really focused on that before. 

It’s a syndrome that I find quite often. I call it the BTTWWADI syndrome.

The But That’s The Way We’ve Always Done It syndrome.

But that’s the way we’ve always done it! And so the first step in looking at customer experience and engagement differently is to get past the But That’s The Way We’ve Always Done It syndrome. 

There are three questions you need to have with your team or your entire organization. 

The first is, Why do people find change so threatening?

Typically, it’s fear of the unknown. It’s a fear of failure. I once heard a sales trainer, we’re not here for sales training, but what sales trainers say, fear is just an acronym for False Evidence Appearing Real. I like that because, you know what, it may not be real to you, but it’s very real to the people experiencing it. So that’s the first thing. 

The second question is, How do you get past the But That’s The Way We’ve Always Done It syndrome?

Probably the number one way to get past that is to create a climate where it’s okay to ask why. Why do we do it that way? Why have we always done it that way? And maybe, Why not? Why not try this? I don’t know if you have kids, Michael, do you? 

Michael Lee 

Yes, I do. I have two daughters.

Jeff Tobe 

Do you remember the two to three year olds, when the Why was like, Why, Daddy, why? Daddy, why Daddy? There’s a warning that comes with coloring outside the lines. It’s okay to color outside the lines as long as you don’t fall off the page. So you got to know your team well enough to get them to empower them to ask why. 

And then the third question is, What motivates people to move outside of their comfort zone? 

These are the three questions and again, you’re going to hear things like pressure. Personally, if I don’t move outside my comfort zone, I may not be here a year from now. Professionally, if we as an organization or a team don’t move outside of our comfort zone, we may not be here a year from now.

Michael Lee 

in this sort of acceleration into the future where creativity and innovation is so important, what’s the secret sauce that an organization can focus on to get themselves up to speed, to get themselves into an engagement with their employees and their customers in a way that’s going to actually get them going?

Jeff Tobe 

I think the first thing, and I hope you’ll agree, is that it’s never done. I have organizations who when I’m done with my contract, they say, Oh yeah, look, we used to have meetings in person, and now look how we’ve changed. We’ve got these virtual meetings, and we accepted change. But they haven’t.

And so I think it’s a mentality of, It’s a journey, it’s not a task. I think the second thing is something that I espouse, and that is that there’s always more than one right answer. As simple as that seems, Michael, it seems to be a mindset that when an organization gets it, they really get it. In other words, they’re constantly challenging themselves, even when they find themselves saying, Oh, I’ve seen this a thousand times before, I know exactly what to do. They say to themselves, well wait a second, Jeff said there’s always more than one right answer. So let’s challenge ourselves before we leave this meeting to look for that second right answer. I call it giving yourself an Ask. An alternative solution kick. It’s incredibly important. 

The other part is to understand perspective.

I like to say, “See the world through your customers’ eyes and you’ll see the way your customer buys.” And let me just explain, I use customer because it might be client, it might be patient, it might be member, that’s what we think when we think of our customer, but you know what, I think everyone who’s listening, we’ll agree we have internal customers and external customers. So when it comes to engagement, it’s about our internal customer. We still want to see the world through their eyes, and see how they buy into change, how they buy into new concepts, how they buy into whatever this new normal is going to look like.

Michael Lee 

What do you see as the connection between innovation and engagement?

Jeff Tobe 

Successful organizations, I have to tell you, go to great lengths to nurture innovation, and they’re not always doing it right. But from internal start-ups, the C-Suite, we know the opportunity to be innovative drives employee engagement, there are stats out there, there are studies that have been done. Our own data that we did in compiling Anticipate, the book, indicates that engagement is highly correlated with innovation behaviors of all types of organization. It just encompasses having a culture that encourages its employees to innovate, even though success, as you know, isn’t guaranteed. 

And I think that’s a big stumbling block. So many organizations say, Well, what if we fail? Okay, what if we fail? Let’s debrief it, as long as it doesn’t bankrupt us, it’s not illegal or immoral. We might fail. Engagement has an even stronger impact on organizations taking action on innovative ideas. It’s just been proven. 

So the question is, does engagement lead to innovation, or does innovation lead to engagement? And I like to say, in fact it’s both. If you foster innovation in your organization, you’ll probably find that your engagement levels benefit too.

Michael Lee 

I supposed that part of the benefit of that is that whereas a lot of people might find it difficult to accept innovation that doesn’t work out, if there’s other benefits to the innovation process besides just the final product, such as a more engaged, a happier, more educated workforce, then you get that benefit, no matter what happens with the actual.

Jeff Tobe 

If you think about creativity as two words, there’s “Create.” As human beings we create all the time. But then there’s the “ivity”. That’s the hard part. And I also say, Well, you don’t walk around talking about a company or an organization saying, Wow, are they ever creative! Like, you don’t look at Microsoft, Are they ever creative! We say, Are they ever innovative! Why? Because they took action. 

I definitely think we’re becoming more engaged. I think that organizations are realizing that engagement is a matter of survival in business today. And they’re seeing so many examples of engaged employees ultimately creating the ideal or the wow experiences I like to say. They’re so closely knit that I think what organizations are realizing is that I can work internally and still create a better experience. And it ultimately leads to a better margin, a better bottom line. So if I can make money by getting my people more engaged, it just makes sense. So I think – maybe I’m overly optimistic – that we’re becoming more engaged.

Michael Lee 

One of the guests in an earlier podcast mentioned the high cost of replacing a single employee.

Jeff Tobe 

I think it’s about seven times whatever it costs you to retain an employee. So that’s huge. And that’s a hard cost. You can’t ignore the figures.

Michael Lee 

The other statistic I heard, which I think is shocking, relates to your 33% Gallup statistic. They’ve said that twenty percent of American workers are actively disengaged. Which they defined as essentially sabotaging the workplace.

Jeff Tobe 

The bottom line is I saw somebody take it a step further and look at that twenty percent disengaged, and look at it compared to generations. It’s very interesting. Because now you’re saying I have that twenty percent, how does the generational breakdown happen? And what was surprising to me is that many of those disengaged are older, what I would call veteran workers. In other words, they’ve been there for quite a while. We blame Gen Y for being lazy and disengaged at work. It’s not true. They’re just engaged in a different way. 

And so I, again maybe I’m overly optimistic Michael, but I think that we’re working our way out of that, because I think those older veteran workers are soon to retire, to leave the workforce and workplace. And I think this new generation that’s coming in and Gen Y are fantastic. They engage differently than before. If you understand your people, work with them in the way in which they want to be worked with, not a way in which you used to work with them. And that’s a whole mindshift right there for organizations and for leaders. But we have to work with them. 

And then I have to tell you, a lot of senior leaders roll their eyes and go, That seems like a lot of work! Well, guess what? Yes, it is!

Michael Lee 

And benefits will come from them. So if you had to give one piece of advice or piece of information to people listening to this podcast and you wanted them to remember you for it, what would you say?

Jeff Tobe 

I think it would be to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Let me give it in the same vein as a challenge to your listeners. I know that we can’t see them. But I’m going to give them a challenge. And it’s simply this. Next time you get into your car to drive somewhere, I want you to drive there only looking in your rear-view mirror. Wait, don’t do it. I’m only kidding. 

**AT THE EDGE ⚡ ON EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT AND INNOVATION is a podcast from Silicon Valley based company Innovation Minds. It looks at how to solve the new challenges of the post-pandemic global workplace by talking to a diverse offering of business leaders from around the planet on how to use innovation to engage the workforce, as well as how to innovate engagement using technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning to humanize relationships in the new distributed workplace.

“Innovation is about people, not technology,” says Innovation Minds’ founder and CTO Bala Balasubramaniam.

We believe that innovation OF the workforce is as critical as innovation BY the workforce. Innovation itself offers a critical solution. Innovation can be part of the daily work of everyone in a company, and provides a key to engagement as much as, or even more than, being an end in itself. This podcast aims to help companies manage the new reality in cutting-edge ways.”

Guests for our first season include corporate HR leads, world-class consultants, best-selling authors, and employee engagement and innovation experts working across a wide range of industries: Clint Pulver, Themba Chakela Jamie Notter, Maddie Grant, Delano Johnson, Shawn Nason, Luke Jamieson, Coonoor Behal, Jeff Tobe, Niven PostmaAdriana Bokel HerdeSindhu Joseph and Dickson Tang.

You can listen to the podcast at the Innovation Minds website or at any podcast platform.