Q&A: Employee Feedback Takes Off As Its Own Market

Employee Engagement Group

Egan Cheung is vice president of product at Achievers, an employee engagement platform based in Toronto. Before joining Achievers, he worked the SaaS software firm Eloqua, which was acquired by Oracle and became an integral part of Oracle Marketing Cloud. We spoke with him about Achievers, the changing landscape of engagement technology and growing intricacy of engagement products.

Why don’t we start with you telling me about Achievers?  

Yeah, absolutely. At its core, the Achievers platform is an engine that allows companies to listen to employees and provide personalized actions and real-time feedback that’s both positive and constructive.  

We started out in 2002 as a company called I Love Rewards. Our founder realized that many of the rewards companies issued back then weren’t completely valued by their employees. So he came up with a way to give employees a choice in how they wanted to bring to life their individual successes. You know, not by receiving a grandfather clock, but by having an experience or traveling or getting something they truly valued.

Although our platform has vastly evolved in terms of the use cases we address, we’ve expanded well beyond rewards into tools that allow people to offer everyday recognition. These are tools that allow you to listen to your employees, coach managers to be better managers, give and receive feedback and then do something about it.

Focus on employees to encourage participation, get #data for to guide engagement efforts. #HR #HRTech @Achievers Click To Tweet

We’ve spent a lot of time researching what actually makes employees want to participate in a cohesive employee experience. We want to be a digital part of that employee experience. We do that by focusing on building tools that feel like the tools employees use every day as consumers.

We do that by making sure we’ve aligned ourselves and our business around the participation of employees, not transactions or the movement of goods. As a result, we get massive participation. We get employees who are logging in daily and weekly. This gives our customers access to tons of information they can use to make decisions about how they want to steer their culture or steer their program.

In many ways, managers drive check-ins and feedback. But pulse surveys and the like are often criticized because they can be influenced by, say, the employee’s mood on that particular day. How does Achievers get around that kind of issue?

Egan Cheung
Achievers’ Egan Cheung

The problem with engagement surveys and pulse surveys has historically been, first of all, you do them so infrequently. Anything you do annually, the information that goes in tends to be completely flavored by what’s called “the recency effect.” You know, “I’ve just gone through a year’s worth of work and you’re asking me now what do I need to work on?” What you’re really going to think about is the last three weeks. It’s hard to reach back and think about way back in March when there was some pressing issue and I wish it could have been addressed then.  

In September 2018, you began offering Achievers Listen as a standalone tool. What does Achievers Listen do and what’s it role in your full Platform?

Basically, Achievers Listen is a continuous listening tool that asks questions and engages with employees in a scientifically validated way. It’s comprised of a couple of main components. On the one hand, most people have existing processes or tools that they’re not willing to completely leave behind. As part our solution, we offer a quarterly pulse survey that allows you to benchmark company-wide engagement metrics and provides managers with that information immediately. That’s actually a major difference. As soon as the survey’s closed, the manager’s able to access the data.

The other major difference is that we provide an action builder. You don’t need to wait three months to have a consultant come in, do a deep dive into the data and then host a giant presentation to the entire company.

Our research shows the majority of issues people bring up in pulse surveys are actually best solved at what we call “the local level,” namely the team itself. Quite often they have to do with team dynamics. They have to do with a sense of equity on the team. They have to do with a sense of recognition.  

The action builder allows managers to take information and immediately conduct a listening session with their team. Since we’re in tons of industries, we don’t necessarily prescribe specific things they need to do. We assume that most managers are in their role because they already have the necessary functional knowledge. But at the same time, they may lack the managerial expertise to address issues related to functional things. So our pulse survey tool is the first step toward taking people away from the annual engagement survey and into more of a continuous listening mindset.

You said your tools gather all of this information in a “scientifically valid” way. What do you mean by that?

A few years back, we acquired a company called Roundpegg. Roundpegg was founded on the basis of three or four key research papers that indicated a few things about people. First of all, that people’s values are fairly set but are highly specific to each individual.

When we acquired Roundpegg, we also acquired a lot of their technology. They’d built a lot of engagement surveying and measuring technology based on that research. We say “scientifically driven, “ but I’d say we’re actually a step beyond that because we’ve got the ability to marry the scientific studies with the pragmatic data we’ve collected to confirm whether or not these things are true outside of academia’s limited budgets.  

The academic terms for the ways people measure and define engagement is “engagement antecedent.” That’s an important dimension to measure in terms of how people feel about work.

“Engagement antecedents” is kind of a mouthful to park in a product, so we called these “engagement elements.” You can think about them as the things that factor into your day-to-day work. For instance, whether or not you feel supported, whether or not you feel recognized, whether or not there’s a clear strategy, whether or not there’s good communication.    

It’s also important to measure engagement outcomes. We call those “engagement indicators.” In a regression model, you’d take the elements and would want to be able to predict the indicators, because that’s ultimately what you’re trying to get to when you’re talking about engagement.

The indicators we’ve chosen are based on some of the foundational research papers done on engagement. We called them “advocacy.” So it’s about the degree to which I, as an employee, am a proponent and advocate of working here, and whether or not I’d encourage others to work here. Then there’s “commitment,” which is whether or not I’m considering leaving.

The final one is “enthusiasm.” The academic research around engagement diverged a little bit after some of the original papers. A huge portion has gone into the study of enthusiasm as a measure of employee engagement. It’s been described as the degree of discretionary effort that you’re willing to put in. Others in academia have described it as a psychological meaningfulness. We’ve just kind of summarized it as the notion of enthusiasm—whether or not, when you come to work, you feel full of vigor, ready to attack the work day.

In September, you began to offer Listen as a standalone tool. What was the thinking behind that?

It’s actually pretty simple. We launched Listen as a tie-in with Recognize, and we got a really great response to it. People said, “You know what? I’m really interested in that Listen part but I’m not the one in charge of recognition.” Or, “We’re not ready to deploy an entire recognition platform but can you sell me the Listen part?”

Of course, that’s the definition of a new market: People want to buy something because they have a specific pain they’re trying to address, they’ve got a budget for it and they believe our approach and our product will solve that pain for them.

Today we have three pilots going on standalone. All of our paying customers are actually in the joint Recognize and standalone worlds. Part of the goal was to open up a low-service, low-entry-point product for our smaller customers, so these two pilots are all with sub-1,000-employee companies,

It seems rare for a company to spin out one component of its integrated platform. From a marketing and sales point of view, how do you think that’s going to work?

I feel this is a strong way for any product company or growth company to approach [re-examining] their mindset. Because first of all, you oftentimes build these products and you want them to be platforms and you believe in your heart that they work best together.

But you also have to bear in mind the markets you’re serving, right? And especially in the B2B world, the buyer may not be all nicely tied up in a bow and saying, “Yes, I’m in charge of all of these things.”

This is actually something we found even in the early days, when we initially started in the engagement measurement space. We found that people were accepting some of the features that we were putting into the platform, but not the decision-makers or the budget-holders.

"I think it behooves us to architect a multi-product platform in such a way that each element can be sold standalone so long as there’s a market for it." #HR #HRTech @Achievers   Click To Tweet

Think about the person who’s in charge of Salesforce Automation at a company. Imagine that Salesforce included a financial package and the chief revenue officer suggested to the CFO that they replace whatever else they’re using with Salesforce. Even if it was fully featured, you’d need to market it to the buyer in order to be successful.  

I think it behooves us to architect a multiproduct platform in such a way that each element can be sold standalone so long as there’s a market for it. From what I’ve seen in the market in the last two years, there’s no question that the world of employee feedback is taking off as a market of its own.

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