Rethinking the frontline of brands

Rethinking the frontline services of brands

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Brands are quick to identify customer experience as an area of critical success for them. Yet too often those responsible for frontline service delivery lack the authority or the experience to fully act in the interests of those customers.

I’m a huge admirer of frontline service teams. They are a key touchstone for the brands they work for and the work they often do is gruelling, monotonous and emotionally taxing. They are on the receiving end of customers’ whims and fantasies and yet their reactions and the processes they must use are often tightly controlled and the latitude within which they can make decisions is very small.

Failing from the front

It doesn’t make sense to me that brands often assign their most ‘junior’ people to frontline service roles or that they make them follow ridiculous lines of procedure that may make sense internally but utterly fail as customer experience parameters. To my mind, if you have to control people to that extent, then the brand has failed on a number of fronts.

First of all, it has failed to instil its values to the point where they drive and inspire great behaviours. Secondly, it has failed to attract the right people, because clearly, if they need that many rules, then the only implication is that they cannot be trusted. Thirdly, if frontline services staff are not in a position to respond in a human way to the situations they face, then every customer experience is cursory at best. Finally, if frontline people are trained to approach physical, digital and voice interactions as separate disciplines without an agreed over-riding brand philosophy, they will only ever do what the policy says they must and they will run each interaction within prescribed and silo-ed guidelines.

All of this accounts for what is known as the “customer expectation paradox”. Customer wants have accelerated as technology has changed the pace of daily life, so they naturally are looking for everything to be faster, easier, simpler, more available. Yet, increasingly, they expect to be frustrated – and the reason they have that expectation is because of the experiences they have received historically. There’s the disconnect: they want more (in fact, many believe they are entitled to it) and at the same time they believe that their chances of that happening are getting smaller by the day. So the opportunities to ‘delight’ are harder to generate and the interactions are becoming more negatively charged as customers approach frontline with a schema that pigeon-holes them as unhelpful until proven otherwise.

Pulling out of the failure spiral

There is no single answer to this dilemma. But it seems to me that the current approach is locked into a failure spiral that will affect brand profitability and frustrate a lot of people along the way. As consumers increasingly use mobile technology to self-serve and pre-select, the role of frontline services teams is changing from one steeped in reactive answers and awkward sales processes to one that revolves around logistics, conflict resolution and proactive help based on big and little data insights. And that, it strikes me, is a very different set of skills than ‘someone to answer the phone’ or ‘to talk to at the counter’.

It’s time for a new attitude. Start with what’s possible, not just what’s ‘permitted’

If brands are to continue to prove their worth to picky customers in crowded markets, then simply upskilling people in changing technology and changes in the regulatory environment will not shift the preference dial at all, nor will it solve the paradox I alluded to earlier. Instead, brands need to be thinking about how they can hire people for their hospitality skills, train them in mediation and negotiation, provide them with deeply human processes and procedures, encourage them to see the purpose and the values as their principal accountabilities, give them the greatest degree of latitude possible (in other words, start with what’s possible, not just what’s deemed to be permitted) and provide them with career tracks that make that investment worth it.

Brands now know more about their customers than they ever have. But all that information is just pointless datasets unless they are prepared to do something good with it. The reality is this. For all the talk about social and engagement, too many businesses still have frontline services that customers don’t want to talk to or that they don’t feel they can. That’s not good for business.

Note: A version of this post has been published elsewhere under the title Rethinking CX On The Frontlines Of Brand.

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