If You Really Want To Know What Your Customers Are Saying, Start With Your Employees


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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.


  1. Jim

    Whilst talking to front-line staff obviusly provides insights into customers’ problems and thus opportunities for improvement, it is obviously no substitute for talking to customers themselves about the jobs they are trying to do and the outcomes they are looking for, and thus what products, services and experiences should be offered in the first place.

    It is the difference between doing things right and understanding what the right things to do are.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

  2. Hello Graham

    Of course, that’s correct. There is no substitute for talking with customers and doing customer research. That’s why I suggest the establishment of customer advisory councils, amongst other approches to listening to the voice of the customer. In fact, one of the most useful applications that I have found of employee advisory councils is to assist in the interpretation of customer research. Front-line employees can add a perspective on research findings that it may be difficult to find in the rarified air of the executive floors. When customers say we are difficult to deal with, front-line empoloyees are likely to know exactly what they are talking about; whereas, senior managers can only speculate.



  3. Jim

    I thought that is what you would say. I think that Customer Advisory Boards are a great idea, particularly when they are upgraded to much larger and more vibrant communities of practice, to really help the voice of the customer to span the boundary.

    My own experience is that this is not enough. Bringing the voice of the customer inside the company is great until you realise that the departmentalised silos in most organisations make them highly disfunctional. I sometimes have to get the organisations to create a Customer Management Board to get the different silos to collaborate and the organisation to respond to the insights from customers in a coordinated way.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

  4. Graham and Jim –

    We find that an increasing number of companies are embarking on ‘customer first’ and ‘envoy’ type programs with employees, linking their attitudes and predispositions to act with customer loyalty behavior. These initiatives, while often focused on front-line employees, are directed at changing the culture to be more customer sensitive; and this, at the end of the day, involves everyone in the company, from the CEO to the janitor.

    Total quality guru W. Edwards Deming used to postulate that every employee had only one of two functions: to support the customer or support someone who does. In more contemporary terms, Lior Arussy of Strativity has identified employees as either customer experience enablers or deliverers, pretty much the same concept.

    It is linkage to a bottom-line set of performance and financial metrics that marketing, sales, marketing research, customer services and, with now greater frequency, HR want to direct employee attitudes and behavior; and we have developed a highly actionable research framework to help meet that important objective. This enables companies to plan communication and training around optimized customer experiences and relationships.

    Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
    Vice President and Senior Consultant
    Harris Interactive Loyalty

  5. Michael

    Great comment. This is an age old issue. I remember discussing Internal Marketing with Prof Adrian Payne on a Relationship Marketing course he gave at Cranfield in 1992!

    Even before that, motivating staff to deliver a new, revitalised, re-branded company was a big part of the approach that was used in the early 1980s during the turnaround at British Airways. It was driven through a series of programmes that got staff ever more involved in the turnaround activities:

    1. Managing People First – involved senior management in redesigning how they would lead the changes in the new customer-centric British Airways
    2. Putting People First – involved front-line staff in redesigning how they would change their work to become more customer-centric
    3. A Day in the Life – involved all 45,000 staff from around the world in understanding how each part of the organisation supported front-line service delivery. A particularly memorable part of the programme was the round table at the end of the day when one or more board members would take unscripted questions on the chain from staff and would either give a straight answer back, or would commit to get an answer back to them through their manager the following day. That’s walking the talk
    4. Brain Waves – involved all staff in coming up with ideas to continuously improve customer-centric business

    I was privileged to both experience parts of the programmes as a British Airways back-office employee and to deliver parts of the programmes to my colleagues.

    But British Airways, Time Manager International and Saatchi & Saatchi who led the turnaround were smarter than to try and “direct employee attitudes and behavior”. Staff would have resented being told what to do and how to behave and the change programme would have failed miserably, even if that meant staff would have ultimately lost their jobs. Instead, they were kept fully informed, were heavily involved in the changes and were allowed to experience how the new British Airways would look, feel and function throughout the turnaround process.

    The final look and feel of the new British Airways was as much an emergent phenomena through the collaborative efforts of staff, partners and customers, as it was an overtly planned one by management.

    Although performance measures are important to management, they are not anyway nearly as important to staff. Management must take a more rounded view of staff motivation if they are to willingly embrace the reorientation towards customer-centricity and to make the company fit for customers.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager


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