The power of the frontline

genuine-interest-copyLast night, my 10-year-old son, Cooper, and I swung by Park Meadows Shopping Center following his basketball practice in order to purchase an umbrella as a gift for a colleague who is relocating from Denver to New York City. (Having lived there myself, I know the value of a decent umbrella on those rainy days when available taxi cabs are few and far between.)

We began our quest at Nordstrom. After lingering in the accessories area of the women’s department, I was approached by a sales associate whom I asked where I might find a nice umbrella for a colleague who was relocating to New York and was stunned by her response:

“We might have some in back but we don’t have anything nice. They’re the same ones you can find anywhere.”

I have a habit of refusing to reward poor customer service with a sale, so I thanked her and moved on to a second retailer: Michael Kors.

At Michael Kors, after glancing about the showroom, I was approached by a friendly associate who asked, “Is there something I can help you find?”

“Yes,” I said, “I’m looking for a nice umbrella for a female colleague.”

His response was amusing: “We don’t carry those this time of year.”

Surprised, I said, “Really? It’s April. You know, April showers bring May flowers… If not now, what time of year do you carry them?”

Following my rationale, he smiled and laughed. Together, Cooper and I moved on to a third retailer: Brighton Collectibles.

There, we were assisted by a helpful sales associate who produced a bright umbrella displaying a pattern of colorful pink and red cherries, which, unfortunately, was not exactly what I had in mind for a newly-minted New Yorker.

Sensing my disappointment, the associate expressed genuine interest in identifying an alternative gift by posing a series of questions (“Who is the gift for?”, “What is the occasion?”, “What is her style?”, etc.). Within minutes, I had located a suitable option among the eclectic mix of accessories on display.

Leaving the mall, I reflected on the quality of customer service received at the different retailers we visited. My takeaway was not that the customer service quality at Brighton Collectibles is better than at Michael Kors or Nordstrom. My experience proves that, regardless of a company’s reputed customer service culture, the quality of a customer’s actual service experience hinges on his one-on-one interaction with a frontline service provider.

In truth, frontline employees don’t merely project the organization’s customer service culture. They are its customer service culture.

Don’t settle for ordinary. Choose extraordinary. (It’s always a choice.) Pre-order Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary by Steve Curtin (AMACOM Books, June 11, 2013)

Illustration by Aaron McKissen

  • “the quality of a customer’s actual service experience hinges on his one-on-one interaction with a frontline service provider.”

    Couldn’t agree more. That one interaction will make or break the customer service and all of it rests in the hands of your employees. The brand managers of the world actually have very little to do with upholding the company brand–it’s your customer-facing employees that make it work.

  • To view your point about neglecting those who are truly responsible for upholding the company brand (i.e., entrusting the brand to brand managers versus frontline employees) another way, I’m always dismayed to see businesses investing in public space renovations (to benefit customers who are here today and gone tomorrow) while neglecting comparable investments in facilities such as cafeterias and locker rooms to benefit employees (many of whom will be supporting the business for years to come). It reminds me of the greedy farmer from the Aesop’s Fable about the goose and the golden eggs. When you neglect those responsible for production, production suffers or – as in the case of the goose – stops completely. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment!