The Responsibility of Front Line Staff When Lines are Long

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I was recently with my father-in-law at a doughnut shop. The line was fairly long and not moving quickly. The person behind the counter serving customers wasn’t moving particularly fast as he cared for one customer at a time.

As we waited, we watched one customer lose patience, leave the line, get in her car, and go through the drive-through. And I’m pretty sure she got faster service. Still, we waited, and eventually, we were served and on our way.

It’s important to note that throughout the experience, the person serving customers didn’t acknowledge that the line was long and that people had been waiting. Nor did he welcome people as they came into the store. He just focused on one customer at a time.

On the drive back home my father-in-law said something to the effect of, “Jeremy, you’re the customer service expert. What did you think of that experience back there?”

What would Jeremy do?

In response, I started by pointing out that we shouldn’t take our frustration for the long line out on the front line staff. After all, they don’t have the power to hire the additional staff needed to serve the customers in line faster, right? Sure, they have some responsibility to be efficient, but moving too fast can also be a recipe for careless mistakes.

My views on this topic are born out of time spent working in and managing contact centers where it was so easy to fixate on the wallboard displaying a packed queue representing increasingly customer angst with each passing second. It’s no way to live and a much better approach to give each customer complete and undivided attention until their issues are resolved.

In short, I told my father-in-law that the front line employee was doing his job correctly.

What my father-in-law would do?

Naturally, I asked my father-in-law for his thoughts. And while he didn’t disagree with me, he thought the front line employee should have had the wherewithal to occasionally speak to the folks in line. After finishing with one customer, he could have said, “Hi folks! Thanks so much for your patience today. I’ll be with you just as soon as I can.”

One thing you should know about my father-in-law, and father for that matter, is that they both pastored churches for more than forty years. And one innate skill of any good pastor is their ability to care for the people in their church. They notice when people show up, when they don’t show up, and they definitely notice when new people walk through the door, aiming to welcome and care for them.

So when he expects the guy behind the counter to acknowledge him when he comes through the door, it’s because that very skill has served him well throughout his career.

What do the other experts say?

I then posed this question during the daily Customer Experience Question of the Day (CXQOTD) and got a few interesting responses from the group worth sharing.

The Call Center Coach, Jason Curtis said,

When we are busy I tell the front line their job is to serve the customer they have on the line. My job is to staff for all customers. So that miss is on me, not them. They should acknowledge long lines with a help statement. And I do appreciate reps finding that extra gear to be super efficient.

So Jason has a fairly balanced approach of empowering agents to acknowledge that the line is long while still focusing on one customer at a time.

In a similar fashion, Nicholas Zeisler says,

Front line agents don’t need to change anything they do regardless of the size of the queue. They should be striving for a seamless and effortless experience as efficient and quick as possible — whether it’s somebody in the contact center calling for support or service or somebody lined up at a restaurant to order.

He goes on to say that acknowledgment has two parts. The first part is where agents acknowledge that the queue is long and they thank customers for waiting. The second is where supervisors and managers acknowledge the long queue and take action to improve the situation.

This is a terrific segue into an insight shared by Danny Rehbein when he shares the following about Aldi Grocery Stores:

When a line builds up, the cashier calls for an additional employee via the PA system (as a customer I now know help is en route), and when they arrive, they personally take the next customer in line to the register they’re about to open.

He goes on to say,

I’ve witnessed this executed flawlessly several times, so my presumption is that this is part of their training program. By doing so they acknowledge the current wait, let customers know that they’re on it, and ultimately, alleviate the stress of others cutting in

front of you.

Danny makes an important point here that front line staff needs to be empowered to call for backup — and management needs to recognize the need as well. But the staff also needs to be trained on how best to take care of those customers who have been waiting in line for a while.

What do you say?

In conclusion, it’s safe to say that the following is a solid approach to long lines:

  1. Priority number one is to put the customer that’s right there in front of us, first.
  2. Management has the responsibility to train and equip the team to be as efficient as possible and staff the team appropriately.
  3. It’s not a bad idea for agents to acknowledge a long wait when they speak with customers as long as it doesn’t distract from the customer they are serving at that moment.

What are your thoughts on this topic? If you’ve worked in customer service, what’s your approach. Leave a comment below or join the conversation on Twitter.

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