Five best practices: Enabling employees to create a customer-centric culture

24th Oct 2011

Haley Barrile provides five tips on empowering your frontline customer service staff to improve the customer experience.

Consultants can’t make your culture more customer-centric - only your people can. Frontline employees play a key role in managing and determining the quality of customer experiences. They work with customers every day and are the main points of contact for the relationships your customers have with your business. But empowering your frontline is easier said than done.
Some organisations think they can simply introduce a customer satisfaction metric or update the employee handbook, and the rest will take care of itself. But there are several aspects of talk and walk that need to work in lockstep.
Enable your frontlines to create a more customer-centric culture by observing the following five best practices.
1.   Hire the right people
An important foundation is hiring the right employees for frontline roles. Don’t settle for employees who lack a natural service orientation or a dedication to continuous improvement. An inherent drive to satisfy customers can’t be faked.
Supplement employee customer-centricity with sound management practices. Hire managers who truly believe their people are capable of improving customer experience and demonstrate actions consistent with that belief. Mindset is key - if managers don’t believe frontline employees can improve customer experience, any further efforts at empowerment will prove fruitless.
Case study: A global financial services firm goes the extra mile to engage its call center staff. The Head of Customer Experience visits each of the company’s five call centers twice per year. He sits down with all call center employees, in small groups, to talk through company priorities and to explain how every customer interaction impacts customer perception. He makes heavy use of real examples, recognises excellence, and provides consistency. As a result, the firm’s call center turnover is well below industry averages, and customer loyalty scores for the call center organization increased more than 40% in just one year.
2.   Set expectations and guidelines
Sharing concrete examples of what exemplary services does (and does not) look like makes the concept tangible to employees. It’s also a good idea to set clear expectations for how frontline employees respond to survey feedback. Establish processes that reinforce expectations. For example, we recommend following up—promptly and personally - on all survey responses if feasible:
  • Try to address a detractor’s issue and recover the relationship.
  • Thank promoters for their loyalty.
  • Tell people when you’re taking action based on their survey responses - acknowledging that their input and contribution made a difference to your organisation.
Your guidelines should align with your corporate goals. For example, if your company has high service standards, alerts should be triggered when a survey response doesn’t meet a threshold that is correspondingly high. Setting this threshold too low sends the signal that a lower level of service is acceptable.
Case study: Apple’s customer feedback program dictates that store managers call every detractor within 24 hours. Studies have shown, according to a recent Forbes article, that every hour spent making those calls generates more than $1,000 in revenue - that’s additional sales of $25 million each year. Net promoter results have also improved. In 2007, when Apple began measuring NPS, 163 stores averaged 58—a very good score. Now, in 2011, 320 stores are averaging 72, with top performers pushing outstanding scores of 90. Naturally, Apple achieves great ROI on its customer feedback program. A typical electronics store generates $1,200 per square foot in sales, while Apple stores exceed $6,000.
3.   Empower your people to take action within those guidelines
In addition to being given solid guidelines, the frontline needs the power to make positive change. Even where options seem limited, an empowered employee can make a difference in customer experience.
For example, noise is often a huge issue for hotels - and if a location is next to a freeway, employees may feel that their hands are tied. However, on nights when the hotel is not at full occupancy, employees can avoid booking the noisiest rooms and fill other wings first. There tend to be elements within each individual’s control that require just a little creativity - not additional budget or lack of compliance with brand standards - and can dramatically improve customer experience.
Day to day, employees can also be empowered to correct an issue on the spot. Give them the authority to issue a voucher or refund up to a certain amount instead of having to say, “I’ll report your problem to my manager.” It’s the difference between a customer leaving frustrated and leaving vindicated.
4.   Provide tools to measure and improve performance
Frontline employees need access to performance data and customer feedback. Aggregate-level data alone won’t help. They need individual-level data, and that requires a census-style feedback system that invites customers to candidly share their experience.
Regularly collecting a healthy sample size of customer feedback allows the frontline to compare performance over time and to see progress. It teaches employees what customers like and dislike and allows managers to identify coaching opportunities. To generate maximum interest in feedback, the reporting platform must be intuitive, even addictively simple, so that information is easy to find and put to use.
Training is key to this approach. For example, it’s important for employees to know why certain metrics are used. Take the time to explain how NPS, for example, is calculated and why an organisation values a promoter differently than a passive customer or detractor. Understanding creates buy-in that fuels action and culture.
In general, you want to provide tools that enable your frontline to carry out what is expected quickly and easily. The goal is to help the employees do their jobs better, not weigh them down with extra responsibilities. The system should bring information to their attention in a way that’s convenient - even fun - for them.
The ROI of this approach is clear. One study showed that, on average, corporate locations where frontline employees access a feedback program more than four days a week have an NPS that is 12 points higher than that of units where frontline employees log in fewer than one day a week.
5.   Recognise and reward action
Reinforce the accountability you’ve established for the frontline. When someone delivers an exceptional experience in an identified moment of truth, recognise that behavior. One of our customers pulls customer comments from surveys and includes them with every employee’s paycheck. Choose recognition and rewards that reinforce your desired culture.
Another best practice is to share all survey responses, positive and negative, with your team daily. This helps everyone see and react rapidly to trends as a fully aligned group. It also opens a forum for discussing feedback and brainstorming ideas for improvement.
Although there’s no surefire recipe for a customer-centric culture, it’s certain that the frontline is in the best position to identify problems, create solutions, and make positive change happen. There’s a virtuous cycle: Betting on the frontline will generate ideas that can be applied to improve organisational processes. In addition to driving greater customer loyalty, it will also inspire deeper employee loyalty.

Haley Barrile is vice president of client services for Palo Alto–based Medallia, Inc., a leader in designing customer experience management programs to promote transparency and engagement. She has over 11 years of experience in customer-facing roles. Haley has been instrumental in building the Client Services function and helping Medallia's clients achieve their customer experience goals.

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