How To Build A Front-Line Focused Organization
The mantra “people are our most important asset” is commonplace today in business circles. You can find it in so many annual reports and press releases that it has lost all of its original meaning. Yet few companies have absorbed the primary lesson: You can learn from the workers who are closest to problems and interact with customers on the front line every day. While many organizations frequently invoke the mantra of “customer-centricity,” most don’t pay enough attention to those who are closest to the consumer.
It is the paradox of all organizations that they require control yet succeed most spectacularly when they unleash the imagination and energy of their employees. The even more painful paradox is that companies that feel compelled to impose obsolete command-and-control protocols in an attempt to tightly govern the actions of frontline employees are actually running an even greater risk: Frontline workers will fail to provide these organizations with the information, wisdom and judgment required to solve problems and meet their customers’ ever-changing expectations.
Changes in consumer behavior, a generational swing in employee attitudes and the growth of social media have all contributed to an erosion of command-and- control organizations. In their place, organizations that emphasize decentralization and collaboration are rising in order to more nimbly respond to consumer needs. Those who embrace these changes and learn from their front lines are able to create a virtual factory of new ideas and innovation.
In a front line–focused organization, senior leaders have five primary responsibilities:
• Define a Customer-Based Vision. Set the vision and define a customer-based strategy for the organization. These judgments are not just passed down from the mountaintop but must reflect observations, feedback and learning from the field. Senior leaders must mobilize organizational expertise to craft a customer-value proposition that matches the product and service capabilities to what the organization can deliver.
• Develop a Front Line–Focused Culture. Leaders must deeply care about the opportunities their organization affords frontline employees, and they must sincerely respect the importance of their insight. They are hierarchically positioned to embed values and model leadership behaviors that ensure their organizations actively consider the needs of those on the front line and learn from their experience.
• Obsess over Talent. These leaders know that they will win only by having the best talent and the right kind of leadership at the customer interface. They are hard-nosed about the recruitment and hiring processes, never content to leave these solely to HR’s discretion. They ensure that training and support systems are in place to teach newcomers how to be successful with customers.
• Define the Judgment Playing Field. These leaders define the boundaries for employee decision making, clarifying when frontline leaders can act autonomously and which issues are outside of their authority. Senior leaders ensure that employees are equipped with the right resources to make good judgments.
• Live on the Line. Leaders need to go where the action is. They must interact with workers at the customer interface to understand whether the front line feels capable of executing the strategy. Are individual employees committed? Are we incorporating all of our knowledge about customers? Are we providing our employees the right tools, resources, and work environment?
There is a five-step process for leaders to build or, more likely, rebuild their companies from the front line so that the ingenuity, innovation and emotion of thousands of employees can be harnessed. The steps are:
• Step 1. Connect the Front Line to the Customer. The CEO and senior team have three fundamental responsibilities in step 1: Understand changing customer needs based on feedback from customers and employees. Ensure that the organization’s capabilities match the customer promise. And connect the front line to delivery and improvement of the customer value proposition.
• Step 2. Teach People to Think for Themselves. Employees must be taught how to make the right customer-friendly judgments while protecting the business’s long-term health. Step 2 requires continuous teaching and discussion of how judgment is applied in actual situations. Teach everyone deeply about customer needs and basic business math. Couple organizational values with a problem-solving framework that can be used by frontline employees and coached by their leaders.
• Step 3. Experiment to Implement. Employees can be encouraged to innovate entirely new solutions. Define the innovation areas (products, services or business processes) where frontline innovation is desired. Explain how employees work with others in the organization to generate, review and select innovation ideas for implementation. Provide a methodology for experimentation and measurement.
• Step 4. Break Down the Hierarchy. Invigorate the change process by resetting the organizational context. Senior leaders must actively diminish the detrimental aspects of hierarchy — disrespect, intimidation and oppressing opinions — through the careful use of language, symbolism and open discussion of role expectations.
• Step 5. Invest in Frontline Capability. Select candidates rigorously and in alignment with the values and customer expectations. Develop frontline judgment capability through an immediate and sustained investment. Teach leaders of frontline associates how to be effective in their critical roles.
There are a few specific actions nearly all firms should be doing for frontline staff :
• Eliminating Unnecessary Work. Organizations tend to create unnecessary bureaucracy as a by-product of their operations. In some organizations, employees become trained to not question policy, avoid making recommendations and keep their heads down. Involving frontline personnel has not only shed light on inefficient business practices but simultaneously given those on the front line a sense of increased control over their work environment.
• Making Time for the Front Line to Think. Another way to free up frontline capacity is to thoughtfully employ technology to simplify employees’ work or seek their input. Many companies use technology strategically to free their front line from manual work or menial aspects of their jobs. Pepsi, for example, used route optimization technology to free up delivery drivers’ capacity so they could spend more time creating customer-friendly displays.
• Getting Intelligence Directly From the Frontline. There is the logistical challenge of getting input from dispersed locations and hundreds or thou- sands of frontline employees and then making sense of it in a rational way. Every day, Spanish fast-fashion retailer Zara’s staff chat up customers to get feedback on current styles and to understand what is selling. All of the information is loaded into PDAs linked to the stores’ point- of-sale system. In less than an hour, every manager globally can send updates that include not only quantitative cash register data but also qualitative customer insights and their own impressions.
• Promoting Collaboration at All Levels. In recent years, increasing numbers of organizations are using crowdsourcing and idea markets as a way to tap the knowledge of their employees. These efforts help demonstrate that a company is seeking the best ideas, regardless of where in the hierarchy they may originate.
Ultimately, the goal is not to elevate the frontline workers at the expense of others in the hierarchy but rather to promote respect for them that diminishes the importance of titles, invites insight from employees at all levels and encourages the use of data and the best intelligence when making decisions.
While we have profiled and extolled the talents of a number of CEOs who have grasped these lessons and put them to good use in their own organizations, our hearts lie with those at the bottom of the organizational pyramid: retail clerks, call-center operators, bank tellers and millions of others who possess both the ability and the desire to give more, to improve their daily work experience and to make life better for the customers they serve. Countless great ideas are lying dormant and untapped in the ranks of most organizations because “nobody ever asked.”
More than simply asking for frontline suggestions, it is time for leaders to create organizational structures and systems that implicitly trust those at the front line — who often earn the least yet do some of the most difficult and frustrating jobs — to exercise good judgment, get closer to customers and day in and day out, deliver great results for their organizations.