Does your company create 'heroes'?

At this year's SXSW Interactive conference, Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler of Forrester Research led a session based on their new book, Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, and Transform Your Business.

At this year's SXSW Interactive conference, Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler of Forrester Research led a session based on their new book, "Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, and Transform Your Business."

The core premise is simple: only empowered employees can serve empowered customers. As technology and social media put more power and information in the hands of consumers, the best way for companies to meet their needs is to activate their entire workforce – not just their sales, customer support, and communications teams – and engage consumers directly.

This isn't an entirely new concept. We've seen brands like IBM do this well. Still, the notion of letting employees loose to blog and tweet about the brand and engage in direct conversations with customers makes most brand managers cringe. So how are some brands able to do this well?

Bernoff and Schadler studied various companies to plot employees along what they call “The Hero Index.” They asked two questions: do you feel empowered to solve problems at work? Do you act resourcefully using technology to solve them?

Employees who say “yes” to both questions are Heroes: Highly Empowered and Resourceful Operatives. Bernoff and Schadler suggest that creating Heroes requires a supportive culture and coordination among Heroes, managers, and, perhaps most importantly, IT:

The role of Heroes is to know customer needs, use technology to serve them, and operate safely. Managers must make innovation a priority, support Heroes, and work with IT to manage risk. The model can only work if the IT team supports Heroes with technology, scales up solutions, and provide tools to manage risk.

The discussion, much like similar presentations I've heard on this topic, focused on two points: technology and employee policies (e.g., guidelines concerning what employees can and can't do in social media). While these are certainly important issues, I'd suggest that companies consider a third point before they unleash their employees to engage in conversations on behalf of the brand: culture.

Beyond the tools, processes, guidelines, and talking points, do your employees have a shared understanding of your company's culture, purpose, and values? Do you trust your employees – not just to follow the rules, but to convey your brand's personality through every interaction?

If your answer is “yes,” then you may have a lot to gain by unleashing their voices. A larger number of one-to-one personal connections between your employees and your customers will likely translate into better customer support and an amplified brand message.

Brooke Hovey is SVP of digital and MD of Cohn & Wolfe's Austin office.

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