When I first agreed to write this, I had grand plans for a masterpiece on trust and the role it plays in the relationships with your customers, but that all changed last night, after my flight home.

Now I’m sure you’re expecting me to berate the airline for a delayed flight, a missed connection or a lost bag.  Maybe you’re even expecting me to comment on the quality of the on-board meal.  Well, both my flights left on time, arrived early, the food was good and my bag beat me to the baggage carousel – without looking like Mike Tyson’s punchbag.

What made me change the topic though was the utter and total contrast between the service I received on the outbound flight and that of the way home.

Flying out, it was 6.15 am.  We’d all got up at 4am and most of us were tired and feeling more than a little grumpy.  Yet as we all settled into our seats, the pilot emerged from his cabin and introduced himself with a short talk which was funny, witty and had us all laughing out loud.  Our moods lifted, we enjoyed our flight and the 2 hours passed in what felt like minutes.

Flying home, there was no pilot pep talk – but myself and my fellow passengers seemed in reasonable spirits.  Feeling hungry, I went to order a simple bacon sandwich from the trolley as it passed.  I won’t go into the gory details but suitable adjectives would be surly, unfriendly and aloof.  As I tucked into my cheese sandwich (yep, for some reason I couldn’t have the last bacon one), I felt annoyed, a mood which continued all during my journey home.

Those of you who haven’t got bored and given up already are probably wondering why you’re reading this on a research blog.  Well, the reason is this.  We spend hours helping our clients to understand the experience their customers receive, working out ways they can add a couple of extra points to their satisfaction score, yet how often do we look at the engagement level of staff?

I see hundreds of projects every year aimed at improving satisfaction and helping companies to keep their customers coming back for more.   These vary generally but gather huge amounts of detail on the exact mix of features in a product, assessing the number of times a phone was allowed to ring before it was answered and measuring the exact price paid to the penny.  Yet the role of the staff who actually delivers the service is often reduced to nothing more than 2-3 attributes on a statement battery – usually checking their politeness, friendliness or other such words which are easy to assess but difficult to action.

Now I’m sure the pilot and cabin crew on my flights have both been given some form of customer service training and have been immersed in the same customer service culture that they are supposed to deliver.  Yet the pilot delivered it, but the cabin crew attendant giving me my sandwich did not.

Across the globe major companies depend on such staff to handle their customers expertly, to give them the service that makes them feel love for the brand and keep them coming back.  No advertising campaign or price cut will ever be enough to make a difference if the service delivered sends customers scurrying to your competitors.

Yet if firms are depending on their employees, why do we spend so little time researching them?  Most companies undertake an employee survey once a year, looking at how satisfied their employees are.  The surveys are ‘owned’ by Human Resources and are aimed at ensuring employees are happy with their working conditions, what their managers are like and what is more likely to make them stay.

The quality of the customer experience is utterly dependent on the employees who deliver it yet the level of employee commitment is often the ignored element in experience research.  Perhaps it’s time we start to focus more on the employees driving the service – if companies can get that right they’ll go a long way to raising the experience for a potentially tiny investment.

Simon Wood is head of stakeholder management research at TNS UK. His research interest includes customer engagement, internal service quality and corporate reputation, as both a consultant to major UK businesses and for research involved in measuring service level agreements and engagement in all areas of the commercial world.

The views expressed in this blog posting are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of TNS, nor of its associated companies.