Front-line employees are often referred to as “boundary spanners” not just because they tread that boundary between the company and its customers, but because they are as likely to identify with and empathize with the customer as with their employer. They occupy a unique position within the firm. They see both sides and often they don’t like what they see.
Despite the current organizational fascination with customer centricity, I regularly encounter senior managers who will sheepishly admit that they haven’t actually talked with a customer in a year or more. It’s the front-liners who meet and talk with customers.
The employees who patrol that boundary are more likely than anyone else in the firm to think like the customers. They are not bound up in strategy-think. They know what happens every day. They are surrogate customers. They hear first-hand what the customer is experiencing. They know what works and what doesn’t; they know where we are performing well and where we fail to deliver. They bear the brunt. They know what frustrates or impresses the customer.
A few years ago, I suggested to a telecoms client that they conduct some focus groups with front-line staff as part of an exercise in customer insight. Management was at first reluctant to go down that road, but were eventually persuaded, possibly because the cost was quite low. We only conducted two groups in that first project, and both went on much longer than the planned 90 minutes. We learned a great deal about what these employees faced every day in dealing with customers. Management was surprised by some of what we heard and asked why the staff had never told them such things; the answer was that they had never asked.
Today, I regularly advise clients to establish customer advisory panels to interpret customer research results and to give an opportunity for managers to actually meet some customers. Some also set up parallel employee advisory panels to provide feedback on customer service experiences, and to add their interpretation to research findings.
By formalizing a process to obtain feedback and input from employees concerning their experience on that boundary, a firm can tap into that vast reservoir of insight about what creates customer satisfaction and loyalty, and what does not. Being part of such a process also gives boundary-spanning employees a heightened sense of responsibility for the customer relationship. They feel much more involved, valued and appreciated.