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How One Company Made Millions From Employee Complaints

One company’s “please-vent” policy has added millions of dollars to its bottom line.

How One Company Made Millions From Employee Complaints
[Photo: Flickr user Sarah Buckley]

It’s Friday, and you’ve got some paperwork to do. But instead of filling out an expense report, you’ve been invited to complain about what’s bugging you in your workplace.

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Forget positive thinking and making the best of what annoys you. Melbourne, Australia-based Appster, an app and game development and consulting firm, has been asking employees what they really think. According to co-CEO Mark McDonald, each week, employees receive an email asking them a series of questions, such as how happy they are this week, and whether they’d recommend Appster to friends as a place to work. If the score is low, they are prompted with questions like, “What are we doing that’s stupid this week?” or “What would you change if you were CEO of the company?” Employees are encouraged to be frank about what’s bugging them.

“It gives [employees] an opportunity to sit down and think that stuff through and be heard. Those are issues that we always encourage our managers to respond to pretty quickly,” McDonald says.

Making Pet Peeves Pay Off

It’s an unorthodox concept—and one that probably needs to be used carefully, says management consultant Supriya Desai, founder of Desai Transformation, LLC, a corporate strategy and execution consulting firm. She says that follow-through is essential, otherwise inviting criticism may ring false and damage employee trust.

“I think that venting can be really productive, and it could be useful to the extent that management is capable of turning emotion into some kind of constructive conversation about how to approach the situation differently,” she says. However, there is also risk in asking employees to ruminate on the negative, which isn’t often hard to find.

To circumvent these challenges, Appster managers meet with employees frequently and discuss problems that arise. McDonald says that’s been increasingly important as the company has scaled quickly—from two employees in 2011 to more than 300 in 2015. To keep the focus from being entirely negative, employees are also asked to give shout-outs to employees who are doing a great job or living the company’s values, he says. The questions are a combination of what’s going right and what’s not, so the focus doesn’t elicit a purely negative response.

Complaining about individuals also isn’t encouraged, since that’s typically not productive, McDonald says. If it’s a personal beef, employees are encouraged to work it out, engaging a manager if necessary. In addition, if you raise an issue, you’re often going to be asked to be part of the solution. The follow-up meeting to discuss the problem focuses on specifics—why they feel the culture is bad or the system isn’t working—and then an employee might be asked to spend a few hours mapping out his or her suggestions to make it better. That gives employees a voice and makes them feel like their opinions and contributions matter, he says.

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Belly-Aching And The Bottom Line

For Appster, this method of soliciting feedback has resulted in bottom-line benefits. Even after employees complained about the company’s former method of consulting, which included creating a formal plan for every project—a time-consuming and arduous task that typically took three to four weeks—McDonald was reluctant to give up such a fundamental part of the business.

However, by asking for feedback and ideas from dozens of employees, the company dramatically overhauled how it gathers information about projects and plans them. Such feedback led to the development of the “Rapid Concept Workshop,” which is a two- or three-day process that has added “millions of dollars to the bottom line” through efficiency and greater customer appeal, he says. Another complaint about how the company needed to do more to give back to the community led to a new program that teaches kids to code.

In addition, the ability to share frustrations in an open way without fear of retribution also helps the company retain employees, McDonald says.

“You get to know if your employees are unhappy earlier, so you get to figure it out a lot faster, if you want to keep your players,” he says. If an employee’s responses go from a 10 to a seven to a three over the course of several weeks, it’s a helpful early warning system that you may be about to lose someone good, he says.

About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and web sites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books.

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