I believe that frontline people “rule the world”.
They control the customer experience and live the brand of an organization every moment of every day. If customer transactions go well, loyalty is created; if not, loyalty is destroyed.
Frontline employees are always on the receiving end of customer “Why questions” — “Why don’t you add this type of draft beer?” or “Why did you take spaghetti and meat balls off the menu?” Or “Why do I have to wait so long to get a customer service representative on the phone?”
These are tough questions to answer, because frontline people are rarely given the answers in the detail they need to satisfy a customer’s query.
Leadership, for whatever reason, generally chooses not to share the details on matters such as product line selection, pricing rationale, credit rules and customer service policies with customer contact employees.
They think either that the frontline doesn’t need to know the details or that they can figure it out themselves.
I once asked a teller at a Credit Union why I should do business with them and not a bank. She was startled with my question and said “Because we share our profits with our members, and banks don’t” — not a compelling answer.
The truth is it wasn’t her fault; she wasn’t given the appropriate answer by the leaders who should be supporting her efforts. And so she was left to improvise and invent the answer herself.
This leaves the frontline in the untenable position of not being able to answer questions that customers have.
On more than one occasion, “It’s a corporate decision” is the answer that comes back to me as the reason a particular decision has been made. They know the answer sucks but that’s the truth to them because they have been left out of the loop.
And, of course, this does nothing to assuage the customer.
Frontline people hate having to use the “corporate” reference when engaging with customers; they feel incompetent and regret not being able to satisfy the customer.
But they have no choice because it’s the only answer they can give.
Leaders must make informed frontline employees a priority; here are four actions to make it happen.
Promote the frontline’s importance
Elevate frontline employees to the top of the “need to know” funnel. Effective customer engagement creates loyal customers and long term profitability so why would you not want to equip frontline employees with every tool they need to satisfy and dazzle customers?
And communicate what you are doing throughout the organization so everyone knows the cultural change being made.
Beats me why they seem to take the back seat to other groups when it comes to getting the information they need to talk to customers.
Determine their information needs
Ask frontline people — strike a frontline panel to help — what the top 10 questions customers ask them for which they have no answers.
And take their questions verbatim. Don’t allow some staff person to translate them into what they “really mean”, because all this does is allow their bias to enter the equation to distort the frontline truth.
Feed the questions back to the panel and ask for sign off before providing answers.
Modify the management performance evaluation plan
Rate managers’ performance in part on how effective they are at providing the frontline with the information they need. Ask the frontline to rate managers; they will provide honest input.
As president of the data and internet company, I implemented a report card process that had customer service reps rate my management team on their ability to equip them with the info they needed to serve their customers.
The first report card rated managers poorly; improvements in subsequent rounds were seen as action plans were implemented to address the shortfalls.
Engage the frontline in systems design
Who better to determine what information systems look like than the people who use them? Unfortunately this is rarely done.
Yes, we stipulate that systems designers determine the requirements of all stakeholder groups, but the frontline teams are not given top priority.
Frontline supervisors are asked along with managers in finance, inventory control, marketing and business development but frontline employees — those actually engaging with customers — generally aren’t given the chance to input directly to what the system should look like.
To deal with this issue, I created cross functional teams of frontline people who had the final say on how information systems that affected the customer contact process should be designed. And they were given top priority stakeholder status; others came after the needs of customer engagement were recognized.
This action did two things: first, it demonstrated to the rest of the organization that frontline needs were the top priority to support our serving customers strategic game plan and second, it showed frontline people themselves that their needs were paramount.
Informed frontline employees is THE essential ingredient in not only building a base of loyal customers, but also enhancing employee engagement.
Simple stuff and a competitive differentiator.
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