Empathic Delivery and the Empowered Front Line

Mar 15, 2012 6:24pm
Posted by: Frank Capek

Your front line employees ARE your brand.  The people who interact with your customers – on the phone, in the store, in the field, or online – have a powerful influence on the success of the business; whether or not customers continue to do business with you and whether they recommend you to others or, very commonly, vent about a miserable experience they’ve had.

How many times has this happened to you?  You attempt to resolve an issue with a product or service and the representative you talk with agrees with you on a resolution.  However, before they can do anything, they must clear it through a supervisor.  You then have the unfortunate “pleasure” of explaining the issue all over again to the supervisor, only to have the supervisor transfer you to a manager, etc…  The antithesis of empowerment, this "run and check" approach is fundamentally out of step with today’s fast-paced business environment.   It leaves customers AND employees feeling undervalued.  It also undermines both revenue AND productivity. 

Too often organizational leaders see front line service employees as incapable of making good business decisions about how to economically satisfy customers.  Many businesses create this problem for themselves because front line service functions are inadequately selected, under-trained, and under-supported.  Front line service work is often tightly scripted with policies that keep people from sticking their neck out to help customers without having to ask for permission for anything off-script. 

Customer service is a monologue; it’s about technical delivery, standards, and execution.  The company decides what to do and how to do it.  Well-designed and executed customer service can do a good job of meeting customers’ baseline needs and expectations.  On the other hand, creating an emotional connection with customer requires an empathic dialogue.   Empathy is the identification with or vicarious experiencing of the situations, feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another person.  An empathic dialogue involves carefully watching a customer’s experience and following up with a thoughtful and appropriate response that demonstrates you really care and are on their side.   It enables the organization to surround products and programmatic services with personal touch.

Empowerment from the Core

Creating outstanding experiences for customers every time is certainly possible.  Companies like Zappos, Starbucks, Amazon and many others focus on creating distinctive experiences based in large part on an empowered front line.  These organizations create employee experiences based on an overall management system that harnesses employee’s full potential to create positive emotional connections with customers.  

Paradoxically, the key to creating an empowered front line is NOT THE FRONT LINE.  The behavior of front line employees is just an outward expression of the organization’s core processes and tools, management systems (including funding, performance measurement, incentives, etc...), and  leadership alignment.  This deeper system is reinforced by an entrenched array of “unwritten rules” that drive the real behavior of the organization.  

If you compare this to a tree, addressing the front line is like hacking at the leaves rather than striking at the root of the situation.  In many cases, front line employees are as much the victims of a broken organizational system as are customers.  Front line employees are often stuck in the tension that exists between frustrated customers with needs they can’t address and a rigid system that makes it very difficult for them to do the right thing for those customers.  A critical question to consider for any customer service organization is what is their purpose?  Is it to solve customer problems that your company’s product or service created that prevented them from gaining the value they expected from your product?  Or is it to be the gatekeeper to make sure customers don’t fraudulently submit claims or take advantage of the company?  One flooring company many years ago found that the financial exposure to customer claims for returns was far less than the organization they built to manage (read prevent) customer claims.  The big difference is that customers are only exposed to this frustration occasionally; employees must deal with it day in and day out.  Unless the deeper elements of this system are addressed in a coordinated and holistic way, efforts to hire, train, motivate, and engage the front line are likely to lead to marginal results.

Empowerment Prescriptions

Here are a few of the keys for addressing the deeper elements of the organizational system.

Adopting Empowered Servant Leadership

Delivering an outstanding customer experience requires empowering employees to perform at their fullest.   Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies describes as Employee First, Customer Second (EFCS).  EFCS acknowledges that value is created at the interface between employees and customers. Nayar calls this the "value zone."  Every employee who works in the value zone is capable of creating more or less value. The focus of EFCS is to enable those employees to create the most possible value.  For EFCS, this includes actions that, in essence, invert the organizational pyramid by making management accountable to employees and decentralizing decision-making.  At HCL, this includes mechanisms that allow everyone to raise and be part of addressing issues, share thoughts and ideas, provide 360 feedback, debate directly with the CEO, as well as reinforce the personal development of individual interests.

This approach is an illustration of what has been described as servant leadership.   Servant leadership is diametrically opposed to the traditional hierarchical approach in which leaders are served by the people they have reporting to them.  This approach requires leaders to act as servants by removing barriers and making resources available so employees can deliver to their maximum ability. Servant leadership enables front line employees to make better decisions and create a better experience for customers. It also promotes forward thinking at all levels.  For example, at Disney, an effective system was developed by a parking space attendant for easy identification of cars in its lot and was approved by the top-rung leadership.  As Professor M. Sawhney commented “..if it ever comes to a choice between what is right for the company and what is right for the customer you will always choose and put the customer first.” 

Creating Generative Employee Experiences

All experiences are about people. In most sales and service situations, it’s people and their attitude that make a difference.  The experience customers have is a direct reflection of the employee experience. Fulfilled and empowered employees pass along their experiences to customers – via a “generative” process.  For example, Zappos has seen unprecedented business success as a result of creating very happy customers based on a commitment to happy employees.

Leaders create generative experiences by hiring the right people for the right job, personally reinforcing a culture of respect and trust, rewarding commitment to serving others, creating opportunities for growth, and demonstrating values that people can identify with.  Since empathic delivery cannot be fully scripted, it leads to significant implications for the employee experience.  Employees must have enough “elbow room” to do the right thing for customers.  This requires a deliberately designed pattern of interventions in the employee experience including recruiting, incorporating, training, communicating, measurements, and rewards.  It also involves surfacing the unwritten rules that may be driving employee behavior inconsistent with the desired customer experience.

Companies have traditionally hired for hard skills, past performance, and other professional credentials.  Increasingly companies competing on the strength of their customer experience are hiring based on soft skills; empathic capabilities and positive attitudes that can’t easily be taught.  People with strong soft skills enjoy interacting with others, demonstrate enthusiasm, and tend to smile a lot.   There is a growing recognition that it may be easier to teach the hard skills to people that naturally possess the soft skills.

Zappos places such a premium on hiring employees with the right attitude that they offer new recruits a $1,000 bonus if they chose to quit at the end of the first week of their four-week immersive training.  This makes sense since if the employee isn’t committed enough to what Zappos stands for they’ll take the money.   A hire that takes the offer clearly doesn’t show the commitment or passion required--information Zappos would prefer to find out as early as possible.

Generative experiences also have a multiplying effect.  As customers have great experiences with front line employees they will most likely tell their friends directly or even better, amplify these experiences via social media.  Poor experiences go in the opposite direction in a far more accelerated fashion.

Overcoming Micro-management

Micromanagement is an obvious barrier to empowering the front line.   The root causes of micromanagement are often a combination of individual supervisor training and capabilities, along with management systems and a culture with an embedded lack of trust and respect.

Regardless of the formalized training, policies, and procedures, the actually behavior of people within an organization tends to be driven by a set of unwritten rules that, to employees, seem like the sensible ways to behave.  Common unwritten rules might include:  “Don’t admit you’ve made a mistake.”  In fact, we’ve seen some organization where the rule seems to be “We’ve never made the same mistake once.”    We also worked with a company and surfaced an unwritten rule that got phrased, “Don’t knock over the first domino.”   This got translated to mean, if we do something once for one customer, we may have to do all the time for everyone.   The safest thing was to avoid ever diverging from the script.

Every company has unwritten rules like these that are highly inconsistent with delivering the kind of empathic customer experience the organization might intend to deliver.   The issue is , in most cases, these rules operate just below the surface of conscious awareness and, in some cases, are even undiscussable.  

In some cases, a tightly-scripted call center approach is determined by limited types of interactions in specific industries, e.g., Financial Services, Insurance, Healthcare.  However, these should be treated as exceptions rather than the norm.   Generally, simpler is better.   For example, Nordstrom’s is famous for having only one rule for employees: Use good judgment in all situations.  While this may be too loose for many organizations, some level of freedom is necessary to respond to everyday situations.  Beyond creating a more effective customer experience, giving front line employees the ability to solve problems puts him in the position of hero, a role that boosts self-esteem and a feeling of being valued.

If you’re not doing the following already, a couple of initial steps include:

  • Provide empowerment funding for front-line employees.  For example, we talked with a bank recently that has authorized tellers to fix customer problems without seeking permission up to $50.00 per day.
It makes sense to provide guidance and training on what are acceptable and unacceptable uses of these funds.  It also makes sense to celebrate role models who are doing it well and fine tune the training as new situations arise. 
  • Begin to identify the unwritten rules you must address.  Monitor feedback from front-line employees on the most common service issues and have them help identify the policies and “unwritten rules” that are getting in the way of delivering outstanding service. 
  • Engage the front line in ideation.  Encourage new concepts & ideas.  Empowered employees will feel more so when they know that their opinions and ideas are accepted and respected.  While not all ideas will be used, new & innovative methods often result from empowering your staff to make certain decisions.
  • Make sure senior management is spending time on the front lines seeing how things are really going. This should be a continuous, regular set of experiences for them that provide direct customer feedback through observation and not filtered through the company management chain.

Beyond the specific prescriptions described above, we also recommend addressing this challenge more programmatically through the integration of customer and employee experience design.    Generally this includes:

  • Ensuring you understand what customers expect and want when they contact you
  • Describing the experience you intend to deliver to customers
  • Identifying the organizational and individual behaviors required to generate that experience
  • Identifying what current processes, management systems, and unwritten must change in order to produce those behaviors
  • Determining how these structural and cultural components are reinforced by the current employee experience
  • Designing specific employee experience interventions that address those barriers.

In practice, employee experience interventions can include changing:  target hiring profiles, recruiting practices, new employee incorporation, mentoring, performance management, measurements and rewards, communications, management expectations, executive alignment, etc…  While many of these are things are done today, this more holistic perspective allows you design these interventions in a way that is much more directed and effective.

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