In this Expert Interview, AdvancingWellness CEO Mari Ryan is joined by customer experience expert Megan Burns.

Mari Ryan: Welcome to the Workplace Wellbeing Essentials Series. I’m Mari Ryan. I’m the CEO and founder of Advancing Wellness. It is my pleasure to welcome you today to this expert interview where we explore topics that impact employee wellbeing. My guest today is Megan Burns.

Megan is an expert on “people first,” customer-centric cultures, and how to build them. She helps companies grow faster and thrive longer by adding empathy, trust, and humanity back into customer and employee experiences. For two decades, Megan has studied what the world’s most successful companies do to earn loyalty from the people they serve. While at Forrester Research, she wrote ground-breaking research that shaped the field of experience management, which is now a multi-billion dollar industry. She has published more than 75 reports on experience management, culture change, executive engagement, balancing customer and business needs, and building strong but flexible governance models. She has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, interviewed on NBC News, and tapped by dozens of Fortune 50 firms to guide them on the path to customer-driven growth.

Today, Megan empowers people to transform culture and operations as a speaker, facilitator, consultant, and executive coach. Her approach is rooted in behavioral science because it’s easier to work with human nature than to fight it.

Megan, I am so excited to have you here for this conversation today.

Megan Burns: Thanks, Mari, I’m excited to be here.

Mari Ryan: We have, on several occasions now, had conversations about our shared interest in employee experience. With your experience from the customer-centric perspective, let’s dive in by talking a little bit about this relationship between employee experience and brand perception.

Megan Burns: Absolutely. If we start with a brand perception piece, that is basically how anyone, any person, anywhere thinks about a company. Their reputation, what they stand for, what they represent, and people form those perceptions of a brand based on a whole bunch of things. Some of it might be their personal experience, they’ve done business with the company, some of it, obviously, will be advertising, some of it will be things they hear from friends and family who work there, or things they’ve seen in the media, particularly now. How a company treats its employees and its workers is one piece of what forms this overall perception of what kind of company is this and what can I expect of them.

Mari Ryan: I’m curious as to whether – with this brand perception – customers actually perceive employee experience. Is it something they are aware of?

Megan Burns: Some are aware of it, and they are becoming more aware of it. There has been a trend over the last, I’d say, five or six years, especially with younger shoppers towards value-based business. It started with some of the environmental concerns and supply chain concerns, but understanding how the company operates and how it treats workers, there are people who will factor that into their buying decisions. That is becoming more and more mainstream, so it’s not just a small group.

It’s also starting to impact investment decisions. More investors want to know and understand how a company treats its employees in addition to financials and environmental things like that. So, when the shareholders and potential investors start to ask about it, that kind of brings it to the forefront of the conversation.

Mari Ryan: That certainly is a good thing and it’s about time.

Megan Burns: I know.

Mari Ryan: That’s great. Here we are in the midst of a pandemic, and we’re hearing about organizations; when we talk about how organizations care about people, this is not just a pandemic, this is an economic downturn as a result of that. There’s a number of elements that are coming into play where pressure is really being put on businesses. This idea of perception and buying behavior intrigues me. I saw an article recently in the New York Times that addressed how companies are responding during the pandemic. Let me read this quote:

“Customers won’t forget how companies reacted to the crisis,” the survey found – this is from a survey that was published. “More than 80 percent of respondents said they would remember which companies did the right thing by their workers. Whether that is extra safety measures, or efforts to avoid layoffs, and three-quarters of those polls said they would remember the businesses that took mis-steps during the pandemic long after it was over.”

It seems like people are starting to pay much more attention to this and will have long memories.

Megan Burns: People have long memories to begin with, and what’s interesting is that the more emotionally intense an experience is, the more likely you are to remember it and the stronger the memory. COVID, because of everything that comes with it emotionally, things that happen during this time are going to stick with people a lot longer than maybe something that happened as part of an everyday interaction.

Yeah, we’re starting to see visibility of the conditions that employees are working in and there is more of an existential crisis. A lot of companies I work with joke it’s not like what we do is life or death. Suddenly, everyday things have become life or death. The ability to pivot to the extent to which you took steps to keep workers safe, there whole emotional component for people who aren’t necessarily physically out dealing with grocery store workers and delivery drivers, but everyone who is working from home and suddenly dealing with a crowded house and family and isolation and not having a boundary between work, both of those things are much more a topic of focus and attention from the media and social media than I think they ever have been.

Mari Ryan: I think we are reading much more about that and there are even websites that are tracking public companies and their responses. If my memory isn’t as long as some others, I can actually go to this website and see what their experience is. If we as consumers are making our judgments about who we are going to do business with based on our values and the ways that companies respond, then certainly it may be changing the buying behavior for some.

Megan Burns: I think there is also the fact that it is changing buying behavior has always been a driver, but one of the moral questions was even if it wasn’t changing buying behavior, but it was the right thing to do from a human perspective, to what extent would companies do that? I think that moral imperative feels stronger to the executives I’m talking to now independent to what it does to buying behavior. I think that’s a significant shift in the overall business culture.

Mari Ryan: So much of the work that I have done, and in my book I talk about values-based businesses where we are using the values to drive those kinds of decisions. Hopefully, some of these decisions that we are seeing will be driven by those values.

Megan Burns: They are being that and more very senior executives of very large companies are talking about those decisions and articulating what drove those decisions from a values perspective. The ones that were doing it before our very often were not super public about it, so you had a little bit of a lack of social proof, the more people say this is what we are doing and this is why we are doing it, the more others who might be hesitant feel because … if Jeff Baza says, hey, hold on because we’re not going to have a strong a profit for a couple quarters because we have to invest in doing the right thing by our workers, that makes it a lot more palatable for other CEOs to say to investors, hey, hold the phone.

Mari Ryan: Understandable. Let’s dive into an example since you did mention that. A specific example is Amazon. Amazon is the business that so many do business with, has received a lot of press during the pandemic around their treatment of their workforce. Clearly, they were at the front lines in terms of being able to support their customers early on, especially when we went into the lockdown, but the treatment of their employees has really been something, in particular, around safety issues. Do you think that type of press a key people from using such a behemoth company with services that so many depend on every day? Will it change their buying behavior, do you think?

Megan Burns: I know it will because it already has. I know some people who have changed their buying behavior, and in a benchmark of the net promoters score, which is a likelihood to recommend, Amazon has always scored very well in a mid-pandemic survey. In one of the surveys I saw their score was like a -44. So it had dropped drastically in terms of likelihood to recommend.

Now, some of that is driven by, hey, you’ve used to promise me two days and now I can’t get it in two weeks, which is a little bit of a problem of Amazon’s own making, but also because of this bigger picture of things they were hearing to the point where Amazon has very rarely advertised in the past and the commercials – at least what I am seeing now – every commercial is not about Amazon products for business, it is featuring different Amazon employees talking about how well they have been treated and everything that Amazon has done to adjust in the pandemic. That is not an accident.

Mari Ryan: I hope it is more than a PR campaign and that it is done from a sincere perspective, that they really are working on enhancing their culture to an extent that it really does care about employees.

Megan Burns: I agree, and I think it’s a little bit of both. One of the interesting things about experience, customer and employee, is that it happens to a single person. Very often there are companies that make changes, but if they don’t talk about it and advertise it, people don’t pick up on the fact that something is different. It’s not necessarily just a PR campaign when you advertise changes like that, but yes, there is certainly a do you really mean it kind of thing.

The other thing that is worth remembering here is that different people thrive in different cultures. Some people love a fast-paced, results-driven culture, and that doesn’t mean that everything that Amazon said and that has been done has been great, but there is also a fit perspective going on. It’s ultimately about getting the right employees in the right positions in a culture where they are going to thrive and feel good.

Mari Ryan: Of course, that’s always the case. I totally agree. When we think about employee brand as opposed to the corporate brand, and employee experience, much of this is grounded in wellbeing. How does this translate into customer experience?

Megan Burns: The most direct way is when you are dealing with an employee who deals directly with customers. I always say, yes, customers don’t want to wait, they want you to be responsive and quick. They also don’t want to work with people who are grumpy zombies. It’s not pleasant, they bring energy down, you are very often not at the top of your game, you can’t answer questions as well. I have lived this. I’ve been on the other end of this as an employee. If employees are well, physically, mentally, emotionally, then they are not going to be able to bring their best to serve customers.

As you go more and more layers behind the scenes into a company, there is still an environment, and this is where culture starts to come in, there are healthy environments and not so healthy environments, and places where people feel comfortable, even if they never use it, saying I need to take a mental health day. People who feel comfortable saying, I’m not going to work 72 hours in one weekend because I need to sleep and prioritizing that. When you see leaders – and more leaders are starting to do this – be vocal about those boundaries for themselves it creates a more positive culture, but it also makes it easier for people internally to do the things that they need to do.

You and I were talking the other day about whether or not some of the colleges and universities are going to be looking at self-care and how well students administered self-care during the pandemic as part of their admissions process for future years. And we said what if that was the case for employee hiring? What if it became a priority to help people who have the discipline to say I need to take care of me and be at my best otherwise I’m not being a good steward of corporate resources. If you are an employee, you are a resource.

Mari Ryan: Exactly. It’s interesting to see if that crosses a line, is that a little too personal in terms of is this Big Brother telling me what I should do with my life, or is it more hiring the kinds of people that we know are going to be productive, that we know are going to be more engaged, and looking to have a better fit? You talked about fit earlier, is that going to fit better? I’m wondering, is there a line there?

Megan Burns: I don’t think it’s about dictating specific behaviors. I think it’s about looking for a level of self-awareness. Just like we look for EQ in terms of interpersonal relations, how aware are you of yourself and what works for you and what doesn’t work for you? I’m not saying I know how to screen for that per se, but that is part of what we are looking for when we are looking for someone who is prone to self-care. I think we also have an environment where there are certain things that are pretty well proven to have extremely far-reaching negative effects, like sleep. The number of sports teams who have sleep specialists, and sleep is part of their training routine, so as more and more things start to become undisputable, taking care of this part of your health makes you better. I think we will start to see more prescriptiveness, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Mari Ryan: I would agree and seeing self-care as a core life skill, as the colleges are now apparently starting to do, which I am excited about and think is really wonderful, maybe we can continue to deliver that message. At least, I am continuing to deliver that message as often as I can.

Megan Burns: I think the younger generations of students were starting to do it anyway because when you think about for each generation what did you want your parents experience as an employee and how does that affect your decision? I am Gen X and a lot of people in my generation watch their parents be devoted, loyal employees for 30 some odd years and then get laid off six months ahead of time, and say, no, I don’t want to do that. Others have seen their parents or grandparents work to exhaustion and then finally be able to enjoy life in retirement, but maybe that retirement is not as long because they didn’t take care of themselves. And so, younger generations are saying I don’t want to wait until I’m 65 or 70 to enjoy life. I want to have a better balance now.

Some of that is a natural functioning of the ecosystem. I think it only gets better when the systems into which people are moving also reinforce those kinds of boundaries.

Mari Ryan: I couldn’t agree more, since it is my work in life to be able to create those thriving workplaces where people feel good and feel cared for. Before we wrap up, are there any other comments you’d like to share with us today, Megan?

Megan Burns: I think the biggest thing that I would encourage people to think about is that employee experience is not just something that is done to you, and I think for human resources and other people professionals inside companies making sure they have this message, yes, what the company does, policies, schedules, things like that absolutely impact your experience. Every one of us as an individual has enormous power to control and manage our own experience of events that happen around us. Everything from deep breathing and learning how to manage the physiology of being anxious. If you can calm down and get your head back in the game to asking questions and being curious and rather than assume somebody managed this that or the other thing, well, what if they were just busy? So reminding individuals that they can’t control what other people do, but they can control how they experience that I think brings the employees and the employers into a much more balanced power relationship. It’s not perfect, but it’s a reminder that we do have some control over this.

Mari Ryan: Good reminder, appreciate that. If our audience wants to learn more about you and the work that you are doing, Megan, where can they find you?

Megan Burns: They can go to my website, which is, all one word, or they can find me on LinkedIn, that’s where I am most active from a social media perspective, sharing and posting and things like that. We’d love to see people there.

Mari Ryan: Excellent. Megan, thanks so much for being here today for this conversation. As always, it’s a delight to spend time with you.

Megan Burns: Same here, thank you, Mari.