Leaders look for improvement opportunities. New markets to pursue. New products to tackle unmet needs. Efficiencies to improve profit margins. Better messaging to convert prospects into customers. Defects to correct. Pain points to resolve.
We scour data. Read customer survey responses. Evaluate processes. Map customer journeys. Visit the frontline employees. Sit in call centers and listen. Go on customer visits with sales reps. Study competitors. Host customer focus groups. Hold employee brainstorming sessions. Attend conferences. Hire consultants. Launch teams. Set goals. Measure. These are all great techniques.
But we often miss the richest source of information. The frontline employees who talk directly to our customers, who sell and service our products. They know more. They hear more. They see more.
“What do I know?”
BellSouth launched a concerted effort to improve customer loyalty. The CEO established a strategy team and program management office with a senior and influential leader to drive it. With broad executive support, they developed a plan. They tapped me to lead a year-long inter-department implementation team. Around 30 hand-picked employees representing every customer-facing department across our nine Southeast states relocated to join my Atlanta team. Many of them were frontline employees themselves. We knew the goals and metrics we needed to achieve but had to figure out what changes would accomplish them.
Weeks into it, I got a reminder that changed our focus and made the very difference we needed. We had been studying the data and brainstorming for weeks. One of the network technicians (you know, the guy who drives the truck and repairs customer phones in their homes) was frustrated. We weren’t listening to him, and he got my attention: “I’m just a knuckle dragger. What do I know?”
His words stopped me in my tracks. He called us all out. Not disrespectfully. He just spoke his truth, and he was right. We all were dismissing his input. After all, we were from corporate. We knew better. We’d seen the data. We’d read the surveys.
I knew the value of the frontline perspective. I’d worked for great leaders who spent considerable time with the frontline and often took me with them. I’d even been a frontline employee, so I knew how he felt. But I had forgotten. I’d become so wrapped up in my headquarters job, I’d lost touch with probably the most valuable experience in my career — the frontline.
Most of us talk to these frontline employees. Visit them often. Send our process and technology teams to observe. We ask for their input. But we miss the best opportunity to learn from them.
Too often, our time with them is to influence their thinking, introduce changes, and engage them. These are important, but we also need to be listening. Hearing them out. Asking them open-ended questions and taking notes without debating. Asking them how to improve specific aspects of performance and then listening deeply without “explaining” why things are the way they are.
That technician’s comment led to a group discussion and a change in how we functioned. We found humor in his comment, and soon all team members used the same approach to remind the group when we got misdirected: “I just climb poles all day,” “I sell phones for a living,” “I fix broken phones,” and “I help customers find the right plan for their family.”
The frontline knows things no one else knows. They may not always recognize the trends yet, but they know things the data doesn’t even see yet. Sometimes, the way they share it seems hypercritical, which makes us defensive, and we miss out. Sometimes they struggle to explain it and we have to work hard to figure out what they are saying. They often get so used to being ignored they quit sharing, and we have to earn it back.
Middle management filters, edits, and repositions the meaning out of frontline feedback. Get it directly (at first, middle management will be concerned, so be prepared for push back). Often. Talk to different people in various roles. Be consistent. Stop talking. Listen without debating. The first round will be met with skepticism. Keep it up. You’ll earn their truth. And you’ll learn more than ever.
When you invest in listening to the frontline, and then you go do something about what you heard, it earns their respect. So, they give you more feedback. They start telling you the most valuable information.
And, when they feel heard, they feel valued. Valued employees give more. They feel more invested. They have a stronger sense of ownership. You’ll notice they are more engaged, and customers will feel it. This will increase customer confidence and build loyalty.
All because you listened.
Never underestimate the knowledge of your knuckle draggers.
Author: Kevin D. Phillips is a consultant, executive coach, and leadership developer helping clients increase profitability, improve customer loyalty, and navigate challenges of rapid growth. As Build Them Up® founder, he is on a mission to help leaders improve organizational results by investing in the people who create them. Connect at www.KevinPhillips.com or on social media at www.HowdyKevin.com. Subscribe to his community at www.NeverUnderestimatePeople.com to learn more about his Great Leader Framework, receive his monthly newsletter, and gain access to other resources.
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