Do You Trust Your Frontline?


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Frontline TeamsFrontline TeamsQuestion: When you go into a restaurant, a store, a bank, do you know who you will meet? The CEO? The VP of HR? The general manager? It’s a ridiculous question because you already know the answer: a waitress, a cashier, a teller. You’ll meet the frontline.

Nordstrom, a Medallia customer, has long been known for excellence in customer service. In The Nordstrom Way, a book by one of Nordstrom’s sales associates, the writer quotes the first rule he was taught when he started his job: “Use your good judgment in all situations. There will be no additional rules.” The notion of autonomy at that level in the retail industry had been unheard of. That philosophy, and the behavior it created at Nordstrom, turned a small family-owned business into one of the largest and most successful retail companies in the world.

Companies mean well when they train the frontline. But being too prescriptive turns people into robots, interactions into transactions, and potential engagement with customers into actual disengagement.

It’s time to trust your frontline employees to do their job, which is interacting with customers. I am not saying that training isn’t important, but a little autonomy can also make a huge difference to the people who matter most to your business—your customers.

When you let frontline staff solve customer problems, customer satisfaction and loyalty soar. According to a Medallia benchmark study of hundreds of Customer Experience Management programs (presented last month at our Best Practices Forum), companies whose frontline staff members log in to the Medallia Customer Experience Management system and take action on feedback generate satisfaction scores that are higher—in some cases by 50%—than scores for companies that don’t empower the frontline.

Medallia 2013 Benchmark Study  - NPS versus Frontline Engagement
Medallia 2013 Benchmark Study – NPS versus Frontline Engagement

How do you trust the frontline? Here are two ways:

1) Let the frontline recover customers (at least when it was responsible for the problematic experience to begin with). More than 80% of Medallia customers reach out to their customers to address complaints, a process we call “recovery.” The most successful make the team responsible for the offending experience—often the frontline—do the recovery. If a customer has a bad experience with the call center, someone from the call center calls to rectify it. If the customer’s bad experience was with a store or location, then someone from the unit in question reaches out.

At dinner last night, a colleague told me about taking her 16-year-old daughter to a chain restaurant. When the waitress came to fill their water glasses, she missed her target and sent a cascade of water and ice onto the girl’s lap … and iPhone. A just-purchased, long-lobbied-for, birthday present iPhone (those of you without teenagers may not be able to appreciate the magnitude of the calamity). Not only did the waitress say nothing, she walked away as the mother offered her tearful daughter napkins to mop up the mess. Within hours, the restaurant (not a Medallia customer) sent the mom a survey about her dining experience and, of course, the mom couldn’t help but relay the iPhone debacle.

One week later, the mom received a $50 restaurant gift certificate.

A one-week turnaround to make good on a bad customer experience? Sounds like it might work? But what really happened is that the mom forwarded the gift certificate to a friend and vowed never to return to the chain.


As she said, “I wasn’t looking for compensation. I just wanted, in the moment, for the waitress to help clean up the watery mess, offer a blanket or something to warm my now wet and cold daughter, and apologize genuinely.” In other words, she wanted a real interaction, not to be processed by a centralized service organization. But unfortunately, the restaurant chain did not teach—and maybe did not even trust—its frontline to provide service when things go awry.

2) Unleash the frontline to innovate. Frontline staff members probably know your customers and your marketplace better than anyone else in your company. And they have some good ideas about how to address persistent customer pain points and percolating customer needs. When you let them “have at it,” they can do amazing things.

One of our customers, a prominent retail chain, found this out when it gave all of its stores “permission to innovate.” The chain then looked at which stores were underperforming and over-performing in customer experience. One store was the outlier in the lineup with some of the highest satisfaction scores in the chain. The GM at that store was tired of all of the complaints he had received about returns, and he took it upon himself to change his location’s return policies. He generated widespread customer approval with minimal additional costs—a win-win that the company embraced by rolling out the policy chain-wide. It was a brilliant idea from the frontline.

A CEO at one of our hospitality customers recently told us that he gave each employee a “get out of jail free” card. Why? He wanted team members to take risks and try new things, and he didn’t want them to be restrained by what they thought corporate or their manager would “approve” of. This empowerment generated all sorts of new ideas that were ultimately rolled out across the chain, including a new checkout process, an enhanced laundry service, and even a change to the loyalty program that dramatically increased repeat stays.

Think of your frontline as an innovation lab: it can test changes at the location level. If the innovation works, a broad rollout makes sense. If it doesn’t, then no harm done.

The power of taking action at the frontline is further evidence that “operational” Customer Experience Management programs impact ongoing business success better than research-only approaches. And the first step in operationalizing your customer experience management is to engage your frontline in it.

So, go on: trust your frontline. They’ll surprise you.

Photo Credit:

Michelle deHaaff
Michelle leads marketing at Medallia, the leader in SaaS Customer Experience Management and has over 18 years of experience in marketing, branding, product management and strategic partnering in Silicon Valley. Michelle came to Medallia from Attensity where as Vice President of Marketing and Products she led the transformation of the brand and the products to be the leader in Social Analytics and Engagement. Michelle also led Marketing at AdSpace Networks, was a GM of Products at Blue Martini Software and worked at Ernst & Young as a CRM practice manager.


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