The payoff for investing in employees can be quick and First Busey Corp. is a case in point.

Two years ago, the Champaign, Ill., company was doing fine financially, but there was a feeling among some senior managers that its performance — and its standing with customers — could improve even more if they made an effort to increase employee engagement.

So in 2014 First Busey created a new "associate experience" team and tasked it with creating a more nurturing workplace.

The team, led by Chief Branding Officer Amy Randolph, first polled employees to find out what First Busey could be doing better. What it learned was that they craved professional development and wanted the company to take more interest in their overall health.

At the time, First Busey "had zero training and development programs," said Randolph, but since then it has created formal programs targeting senior executives, up-and-coming leaders and lower-level workers. It also developed a customer service academy, from which the first class of students just graduated. Roughly half of the company's 1,300 employees are now participating in some type of training, Randolph said.

On the wellness front, First Busey began offering health, fitness and nutrition counseling, increased the contributions it makes to employee health savings accounts, and built a gleaming new health and wellness center at its headquarters. Randolph said that 73% of employees have undergone health assessments so far and 61% are "actively engaged" in its wellness programs.

The workplace improvements appear to have had a meaningful impact on employees' attitudes toward First Busey and, in turn, customer satisfaction.

When the company — a newcomer to this year's ranking of Best Banks to Work For — first looked at employee engagement levels, the results were underwhelming. The employee survey, designed by the Gallup Organization, is largely a measure of how valued employees feel — sample question: "Has a supervisor recognized you in the last 12 months?" — and the company's 2014 score of 3.88 (out of five) was actually below the industry average. By the end of 2015, the score had increased to 4.15, comfortably above the industry average of 4.05.

"Our second scores were high because we did what we said we were going to do," Randolph said. "We took the feedback very seriously."

The $5.5 billion-asset First Busey — which operates two bank units, Busey Bank, based in Champaign, and the recently acquired Pulaski Bank, based in St. Louis — also has seen a big bounce in its net promoter score, a measure of customer loyalty and satisfaction. Its score in 2014 was 24 out of 100, just slightly above average for the banking industry. Its score is now at 37.7; the industry average as of October 2015 was 23, according to an analysis of net promoter scores by the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm.

Randolph said it is no coincidence that customer loyalty improved after employee engagement levels increased.

"Good service starts with how we treat each other," she said.

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