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SmileDirectClub on smiling and thriving at work

Susanne Axelsson
Susanne Axelsson
March 24, 2022
SmileDirectClub on smiling and thriving at work
Cheryl spoke at our Global Frontline Experience Summit 2022 in an insightful mini-talk session. Listen in above. If you missed the summit, don't worry! All of the powerful sessions are available right here.

The Great Resignation is a hot topic right now, and there are many HR professionals and leaders looking to find the root causes and ways to retain their top talent within their own business. But instead of talking about ‘retention’ and ‘turnover’ and implementing over the top initiatives that gloss over what people are really looking for, we think Cheryl DeSantis, Chief People and Diversity Officer for SmileDirectClub, has a far better idea – and it comes from a much more human place. 

“You cannot deliver a superior customer experience if internally you are not delivering a superior team member experience. At SmileDirectClub, we see these as intrinsically connected.” 

Cheryl loves her job which she describes as “Helping people thrive”. Her passion comes from a deep background in marketing and communications where she built up an understanding of what drives teams and customers.

At a time when employees are reflecting on their individual meaning and purpose and looking for new opportunities that align with a renewed sense of what matters to them, Cheryl has invaluable advice when it comes to creating an experience that will make your people (and customers) smile and thrive. 

Create a culture of empathy

Considering everything that has happened over the past two years, empathy has arguably never been as important as the global pandemic continues to drive higher than usual levels of worry and concern for wellbeing. We all need an extra dose of understanding and compassion for those around us. 

For the SmileDirectClub executive team, this looks like:

  • Regular sessions to review customer and employee experience and feedback to see where there are opportunities to build emotional connection into these experiences and train leaders on the empathetic nuances that make for great human connection. 
  • Embedding the strategic importance of ‘thinking like a customer’ into company values, and
  • Reinforcing those values through story-telling and recognition.

Surprisingly, Cheryl says that despite the well-known benefits of empathy, many leaders have told her they don’t know how to be empathetic towards the people who work for them. She has a great way of reframing this, explaining that those same leaders show enormous empathy for customers, understanding in great detail what’s impacting them and how to make them happy. “It’s pretty simple - we need to pivot that same effort into understanding employees!” she says.  

“Even our CEO takes part in review sessions, and people hear directly from him if their video call is being reviewed. Nothing makes them feel more energized than being able to say my CEO saw me, valued me and recognized me. To get that top level leadership caring about that person's performance and that person's interactions has a magnifying effect across the business.”

Cheryl goes on to say that as a leader, building empathy can be even simpler than that – it’s all about listening…

“Listening is really what empathy is all about. Sometimes people just need an ear - they don't even need you to do anything!” 

She also advocates for sense-checking at the end: “Do you want me to do anything about this or did you just need me to listen?”

Listen and act when appropriate 

It has been said so many times in our interviews with leaders that culture comes from the top, but in a contradiction to this, many leaders believe that once you get to a senior level, it’s time to focus on strategy or mergers and acquisition. In reality, this is the time it’s more important than ever to stay connected to your frontline and listen to what they say.

“My advice when it comes to motivating your frontline workers is to care about them; listen to them, and then act on what you hear, because if they're feeling energised and engaged, that's going to have a magnifying impact on how they treat customers.”

Cheryl shares an example around how SmileDirectClub answered the call from staff for increased flexibility…

“We've been reviewing our work policies to focus on the people these policies were written for and on making sure they have a great team member experience. Our 2021 policy gives our people the opportunity to work remotely, but for those who have a role where this isn’t possible, we’ve added in a ‘personal day’ that they can take off for absolutely anything they like.” 

She reports that this additional change to employee benefits ended up costing the company more, but says the effect of the investment into their team to show that their employment is a mutual relationship is just one of the reasons that SmileDirectClub have seen an 8 point increase in staff engagement in just a 6 month period!

Cheryl’s advice for listening is to: “Be curious, be open and ask questions from an appreciative inquiry space. That means ‘Help me understand more about that and why is that important to you?’ Because when you have a conversation from an invitation point of view, it draws in the person to feel safe to share their experience.”

Be a curious cat

Cheryl says this curiosity applies to the company’s hiring process as well where they’re on the lookout for a certain type of cool cat… a curious one! 

“I’m looking for people who have that customer centricity, who are competent, empathetic and engaging. And that all starts with curiosity.”

And here’s  how that one important attribute leads to smiles:

  • Looking for understanding – Curious frontline workers ask more questions in order to really understand their customer’s needs and their emotional connection to the experience. 
  • Looking for new ways – Curious frontline workers won’t be scared to try new things and look for new ways to make the experience better for the customer. As a life-long learner, there will always be an opportunity to improve and a new path to explore.
  • Looking for feedback – Curious frontline workers will be looking for feedback. After they’ve tried out those new ideas and asked all those questions, you know that they’ll want to find out if they’ve done a good job, or not… but either way a curious person will see that as yet another opportunity.  

Bringing your whole self… no matter who you are

Cheryl also highlights how important it is to focus on the person in front of you and what she calls their ‘humanity. “They have a whole human experience behind them.”

SmileDirectClub has seen engagement results soar and their teams tell them that they feel more seen, heard and valued because of a big piece of work underway to educate all teams on cultures and backgrounds that make up their employee base and customer base. After listening to their people, SmileDirectClub leaders found that many people didn’t feel comfortable having conversations around cultural differences. The focus of the current programme is on learning more about each other and how to have discussions as a team and then apply these learnings. 

“That's where things often go very wrong. We tend to give information out, but we don't teach people how to apply it. If you’re wanting to become more of an inclusive leader or want to reflect the diversity of your team, don't be afraid to have conversations.”

Which we think is the perfect way to put that empathy, listening and curiosity to work!

And the payoff is powerful…

“If your company wants to create a better experience for customers, then double down your focus on team member or employee engagement to drive  the right behaviors and conditions for your team members to thrive. Numerous surveys have proven that a highly engaged workforce drives productivity and a commitment to going the extra mile for your customers.”

Susanne Axelsson

About the Author

Susanne Axelsson
Susanne is the Frontline Community Evangelist as well as the author and researcher for Frontline Magic Handbook. She believes happy customers are born out of great experiences. Great experiences are delivered by motivated frontline people.
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