Welcome to the Front Line

Image (cc) via Flickr user hobvias sudoneighm

This past week has seen a great deal of activity at Ziba in bringing its service design prowess to the fore. Last week there was a panel discussion on the service economy with my colleague Cale Thompson, Wired Senior Editor Cliff Kuang and Katie Dill, Head of Experience Design at Airbnb. We also launched the Ziba magazine, which includes my article, ‘Welcome to the Front Line’.

The article can be found in full here, with a couple of excerpts below.

With thanks to Carl Alviani for editing and nudging.

Welcome To The Front Line

She may be the teacher who stayed late because a student needed help. He could be the clothes store worker who called six different branches to secure the sweater you had your heart set on. The banking clerk who said “leave it with me — I’ll get this prioritized and call you when it’s done.” The nurse who broke hospital rules to take your friend undergoing physical therapy to the playground, to speed her recovery.

Sometimes the bar for service experiences can be set so low that a simple common-sense action or gesture from staff can leave us open-mouthed, and rushing to the management or to Yelp to recommend them for promotion. These professionals are the connectors of departments, the cutters of red tape, and the empathic, human interface to systems that can seem rigid and coldly logical.

The nuanced decisions and subjective judgement calls made by front line staff rarely make it into company or government policy. But their observations of how the principles in the handbook translate into service outcomes is invaluable. Front line employees, in fact, are often the richest possible source of insight about customer needs and how to meet them. Here are four principles for discovering and acting on them.

See what they see.

One of the greatest privileges I have as a design consultant is spending time with the people who will benefit from the services and products we design. We shadow them through airports, interview them in hospital waiting rooms and conduct activities in their homes. Our clients are eager to hear from the hearts and minds they want to connect to, and see what insights emerge about what concerns or drives them.

But we only spend a couple of weeks in the field on any given project. Front line staff may not have the same tools or focused time as researchers do, but they spend all day, everyday with the end users. They see patterns over weeks, months and years. They observe where customers get lost and decide to opt out. They see the grey areas, and they see when and why the rules need to be broken. Before making any major decisions about changes to your service offering or policy, make time to see the current situation through their eyes.

Measure the true outcome.

It has been said that the British National Health Service runs on goodwill: take away the extra mile that its nurses, doctors and administrators put in every day, and the system could collapse overnight. The American department store Nordstrom is often referenced for the mythologies it creates around customer service, like employees who march to the far end of a snow-covered parking lot to bring a customer’s car to the front door.

By strict accounting, all of this activity sounds terribly inefficient. What about pushing retail staff to close a sale in under three minutes? Or a thirty second limit to phone enquiries at a bank? How about a five-point communications plan for police officers to succinctly break bad news to bereaved relatives? Front line staff often function well and provide memorable experiences despite such metrics. They see how new initiatives, efficiency measures and changes to staff and environment can have unexpected impact on the ground.

As an organization, it’s important to ask yourself what the real goal is. Identify the the experiences you want to create, and how you want users to feel afterwards. Repeatedly ask if changes you make to processes, roles and services are connecting your users to the outcome you want to provide, or simply obstructing it. Often, you’ll find that your staff are the ones best able to provide an answer, rooted in real-world experience. They want to see their customers again, they want to solve problems, and ultimately, they want to feel like they are making a difference. In the process they may create lifelong converts. They’re the ones to ask about how efficiency can be married with efficacy.

Don’t kill it with rules.

Enable staff to do the right thing. If you ever worked in a front line service role, whether as a career move or a job while back in school, you’re familiar with the cringeworthy training videos and handbooks, the development journals and the terrible backronyms.

Delivering effective and desirable service experiences is about flexibility, not rules; autonomy not automation. Hire well, trust their judgement and arm them with the tools and principles to act in their customers’ best interests. Give them license to surprise and delight. We all enjoy doing the right thing, and the more often we’re able to, the more loyal we tend to be. Properly empowered front-line employees may eventually move up the ladder, taking their experience with them, and amplifying its effect.

Let them inform the customer experience.

By involving front line staff in the innovation process, you gain access to a different set of concerns, solutions and selection criteria, which often leads to ideas that are more relevant and more appropriate. You get to tease out the wealth of insights and observations they possess. You hear new information about their roles, insights about the shifts they have observed in consumer expectations, and the key characteristics of successful and unsuccessful changes.

Your staff, in turn, gain a sense of ownership of those ideas, which tends to increase acceptance and adoption. In almost every case, building up new service ideas from the grassroots makes for more robust outcomes, not just in the services you decide to implement, but in the ability (and willingness) of your front line to make it work.