Unlock a Superior Customer Experience with Your Emotional Why with Cheryl Desantis

AskNicely Team

In February 2022, hundreds of leaders from service businesses across the world gathered together online to take part in the Global Frontline Experience Summit, an event we are delighted to sponsor and host again after its hugely successful first run in 2020. It was a phenomenal event with a contagious heaping of inspiration, excitement and possibility for anyone working in the customer experience and frontline service space. 

If you missed the summit, brought to you by our Frontline Magic Community don't worry! All of the‍ sessions are available right here, and are just as powerful the second time around.

We know that delivering a superior customer experience relies on understanding customer needs, supporting and coaching the frontline, and reducing friction in the customer journey. But what about connecting frontline employees to their “emotional why?” It’s something we don’t talk about enough, despite being one of the golden keys to unlocking employee and customer experiences that put you ten steps ahead. 

In her presentation from the Frontline Experience Summit, Cheryl DeSantis (Chief People and Diversity Officer at SmileDirectClub) shares how we put the human back in human resources, and how we can harness the power of finding your emotional why through team member empathy, empowerment, and engagement.  

What is the Emotional “Why?” 

When you think about why you do your job, the first reasons that come to mind might be to pay the bills, support your family, or maybe you even see your job as a stepping stone to another career. Those are all great ‘whys’ or reasons to work. However, when you think about your emotional why, you may get some different answers... The emotional why is what you get to when you peel back all of the layers of the onion. At the core, what gets you out of bed every day to your job well? If you work at DisneyLand, it may be to add a little magic to childrens’ (and adults') lives. If you’re an Uber driver, it may be that you get to meet a wide range of interesting people and help them get where they need to be. For Cheryl and her team and SmileDirectClub, her emotional why was helping people feel confident, and giving customers a smile they loved. 

When you help employees tap into their emotional “why”, a vulnerability is shared between team members and customers, which “forges a relationship like steel”. From her time as Chief People and Diversity Officer, Cheryl has learned that “when you can merge a person’s personal why with the business purpose, you create a bond. But when you get behind the emotion, behind the whys, you amplify that sense of belonging and productivity”. That sense of belonging and productivity is a strong driver of employee engagement, performance, and retention, even in difficult times. 

How to Supercharge Your Employees with Their “Why”  

Cheryl emphasizes that the frontline is an organization’s “heart center”. So, looking after your frontline means looking after the health and longevity of your business. Employees have the ability to diffuse anger, inspire hope and magnify joy. Cheryl says “your frontline can create a stronger ROI than even the best marketing campaigns” because customers will remember a great experience where they felt a genuine connection to the person who helped them directly, over any Facebook ad or brochure. 

As leaders, allowing employees to share their why and connect to the business’s purpose can “supercharge” your team. The result is employees treating their work as “more of a quest than a job”. A way to tap into this belief is by encouraging leaders to talk to employees about their personal why. When managers open up and have conversations around their purpose, it provides a space for employees to do the same. By doing so, you create a collective force of motivation and empowerment. 

For SmileDirectClub, connecting their teams to their ‘emotional why’ has created “one of the highest NPS scores in this industry”. Employees feel more connected to the work they’re doing, and therefore deliver customer experiences that are genuine, personalized and human-centered. 

So how do we do it? Cheryl says  “supercharging” that team motivation is done by focusing on these key focus areas: 

The 3 E’s to the Emotional “Why” 


As Alfred Adler once said, “Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another”. Fostering empathic relationships with both your employees and customers is about stepping into their shoes, and asking how best they can be served. The goal of empathy is to equip employees to “leave their hearts on the frontline”. That leads to genuine conversations, the breaking down of barriers, and understanding customer needs on a whole new level, which Cheryl says is “when true transformation happens”.  When you create a human-centered work environment that fosters empathy for both employees and customers, you simultaneously unlock superior customer experiences and stronger business results. 


Engagement is based on authentic and transparent leadership. SmileDirectClub, for example, has a biweekly video review where all leadership executives and managers connect directly with the centers. They also do call reviews with contact centers, where leaders listen and give feedback and recognition to employees. Those initiatives have shown that leadership proximity (connecting the frontline to the bottom line) is an essential part of keeping employees connected to their purpose. Cheryl also recommends investing in technology and communication tools to keep people stay connected. Remember, engagement is not one-sided; there needs to be mutuality in interactions. To stay connected to their emotional why, employees must also be able to give feedback and recommendations to their managers - if it’s not a two-way street, it’s not genuine connection.


For empowerment, the focus is less on chasing numbers and more about focusing on behavior. A good customer journey is personalized and part of that personalization is having empathetic moments where employees feel empowered to go the extra mile, stepping beyond policy and procedure. That means coaching employees on being empathetic and providing a space for those moments to prosper. This kind of training and coaching involves showing what success looks like, which gives employees the power to overcome obstacles and difficult situations. Cheryl mentions the one-degree rule, an analogy for the power of customer interactions: “at 211 degrees, you have hot water; at 212 degrees, you have boiling water”. So, a little change can create a lot of energy and dynamic relationships that can empower your frontline and the company. 

In action, the three E’s can connect personal stories to a business’s purpose, which creates better and more meaningful services. For example, Betty, a frontline employee, noticed a mother come in with her daughter, who was in a wheelchair and had a breathing tube. The breathing tube had moved her teeth, and her mother just wanted her daughter to have a “smile she loved”, but no other business would see them due to concerns for complications. Betty knew it was possible and didn’t wait for “ten levels of approval” to help someone. The SmileDirectClub leaders rallied around Betty, and the Chief Clinical Officer got in touch to help them throughout the process. It truly shows how the three E’s create unity within a business, which can transform lives for the better. 

How You Can Harness Your “Why”

In summary, Cheryl mentioned six points to focus on, so you can find the emotional "why" that can drive the success and growth of your company: 

  • Connect your employees with their purpose: enable discussions where they can share the core reasons they come to work every day and connect that ‘why’ to the wider business mission.

  • Chase a behavior, not a number: reinforcing and recognizing the right behaviors will lead to the right numbers.

  • Define what success looks like: define the line of success so that employees know how to reach it, how to challenge barriers, and how they can put their heart and soul into their work.

  • Lead and celebrate empathy: heart-centered leadership and creating superior customer service comes from fostering empathetic relationships.

  • Be accountable for each other: two-way communication and support can reinforce team cohesiveness and the idea that “everyone’s in this boat together”.

And last but most importantly,

  • Reinforce your why in all you do! When you tap into the emotional why people will get more fulfillment out of their work, and deliver more meaningful experiences to customers. 

Cheryl’s experiences and career have proven that empathy and “heart-centered” work can benefit customers, businesses, and employees many times over. This shows that to progress into the future, we need to remind ourselves that our frontline is not only the face of a company but the face of the future. 

Want to see more presentations from the Global Frontline Experience Summit? We’ll be releasing blogs every week diving into all the juicy insights from our incredible lineup of speakers. In the meantime, you can join the Frontline Magic Community to receive updates, frontline news and more! 

AskNicely Team
About the author

AskNicely Team

AskNicely Team
About the author

AskNicely Team

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