Service Excellence At The Frontline PDF Print E-mail

By Paul Dorrian.

osabeth Moss Kanter, the Harvard Business School professor, summed it up quite precisely when she noted that frontline people shape the customer's experience.[1] Quite an obvious observation you may be thinking. Yet time and time again business organisations neglect to cement the correlation between these two variables. The problem appears to be twofold. Firstly, securing a practical and thorough definition of the term "frontline person" within one's organisation. Secondly ensuring that the right person is appointed to the relevant frontline position, supported by regular training and guidance. The problem of course becomes compounded if further up the corporate ladder, the people who are supposed to provide the training and support themselves pay only lip service to the philosophy. Emanating from this particular scenario lies a number of current issues that never cease to amaze me about many local companies.

Firstly, there is the importance of customer service within management's list of priorities. Often, customer service is acknowledged to be of the utmost importance, yet many managers can often find an excuse to relegate it to the bottom of the list. There is always a reason as to why training cannot be provided, on a regular basis, or why basic customer service research can never be carried out. There are usually much more" pressing" matters. Procrastination is all too common an ailment. What can be more important than ensuring that your customers are delighted to such an extent that they want to come back to regularly conduct business with you, one may ask?

Secondly, there is the question of organisational culture. Many South African companies that I have met and spoken with are in a period of transition. Many are still production driven, and although may have a marketing department, are not really customer orientated.The problem with being in a state of transition, particularly when one has to become more competitive, is that there is always the danger that the new predators ( in our situation read international competitors) will be more adept at securing customer loyalty because they provide the customer with better service and a better standard of care and attention than do local organisations. The most obvious place for a customer to experience how much a company cares about them is at the front line, for that is often the company's first line of communication with its customers.

Thirdly, I have often noticed how hesitant many organisations are about seeking help to overcome their customer service problems. The successful international companies will look at any means to give them an edge in the marketplace. This is probably a result of years of cut throat competition in the global environment. Many local companies however prefer to do it by themselves, thereby adding to the inward thinking which is proving to be a major disadvantage in the fight within the new dispensation.

Lastly, there often exists the short sighted situation that people who deal with the customer are expected to provide outstanding service, yet top management does little to ensure that the right environment is created to enable the frontliners to succeed in their endeavours. Its a case of " get on with the job, but you are on your own. And don't dare mess up." With no guidance and encouragement, even the best frontline people will become disheartened and the entire initiative will fall apart.

At this juncture it is wise to reconsider the notion of what constitutes a front line position, and the role that that person can play in the successful provision of superior customer service. The frontline person is someone who interacts with the customer on a regular, perhaps even daily basis. Many organisations have a tendency to limit the definition of frontline positions to include only the obvious ones such as sales representatives, counter assistants, sales managers, branch managers and the like. Other positions such as delivery personnel, switchboard operators, service engineers, telesales, debtors supervisors, and many others are often excluded. In fact anybody with whom the customer has some form of contact is a potential frontline person, no matter how senior or junior he or she may be. And one does not have to deal with the customer on a face to face basis to qualify for this role. People who regularly interact with customers over the telephone or by any other form of communication must also be regarded as frontline staff. It is therefore vital that top management can identify which positions come into contact with the customer, and where, when and how often that takes place within the customer's chain of experience. That done, the next step is to develop a guideline to ensure that all frontline positions experienced by the customer will consistently project a caring and attentive attitude.The following guideline should assist in making this happen.

Firstly, all frontline people must always look the part. They must project an image of professionalism and a willingness to be of assistance to all customers. They need to be efficient at what they do and the customer must feel confident in approaching them. This must apply to every frontline position. Its pointless having your salespeople look and behave in a highly professional manner, if your delivery personnel look and behave like disinterested tramps.

Secondly, all frontline staff should be familiar with the company's products, procedures, services and policies. There is nothing worse than having a customer approach a frontliner with a simple query or issue, only to be met with either a disinterested or ignorant person. Make sure that all your frontline people have read and can understand all company brochures, leaflets and promotional material, and are able to explain their contents to customers.

Thirdly, empower your frontliners to make customer satisfying decisions. This is probably the greatest tool that you can give them. If the frontliner has been carefully selected and trained, and has been put in an environment that encourages success, that person will be in a good position to judge what kind of decision should be made regarding customers. Remember, frontliners work at grass roots level, and their view as to how customers' behave may be more accurate than all the expensive marketing research commissioned by company management. Yet how many companies tap into that source and actively create an environment where that source becomes a major centre for creating service excellence?.

However, underlying all of this is the necessity to include customer care as a criterion in your company's selection and recruitment procedure as well as its promotion policy. Having the right people in frontline positions is an absolute must. If frontline people project an image of being unfriendly, unhelpful, uncooperative or disinterested towards a customer and his/her needs, the customer may believe that this behaviour reflects the company's attitude.

The more competitive the South African marketplace becomes, the more that customers will want what they want and will not be prepared to settle for less. As customers discover that they have greater choice, companies will be thrust into a position where they will need to provide a level of personal attention that may even be difficult to deliver. The sooner that local companies realise that personalised customer care is indeed a value adding exercise the sooner they will start to develop customer loyalty, worthy of the term competitive edge.There can be little doubt that as South African companies feel the effects of global competition, personalised customer care will be the key to retaining customers and developing their loyalty. A very good place to start in building this scenario is undoubtedly at the front line.


1. See Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Service Quality, You Get What You Pay For, Harvard Business Review September - October 1991, pp 8 - 9

Reprinted from Dorrian, Paul. Service Excellence at The Front Line. Successful Salesmanship , April 1997.