Fred Reichheld & Dorian Stone

Ask most business leaders why it’s important to collect customer feedback, and their answer will probably boil down to: “I want to keep up with what’s happening on the frontline.”
We understand the desire to focus on that basic need. Busy executives often feel detached from the thousands of individual customer interactions customers have with their company every day. If they believe that every interaction is important, they’d of course want to be sure no serious problem is overlooked.
But the question we would pose to leaders in this situation is: once you know what’s happening on your frontlines, how do you go about making things better?
Traditionally, companies have used one or more of several approaches:

  • Analysis of frontline problems and key drivers, the solutions to which are passed down to employees through rulebooks and training.
  • Spot checks and inspections, whether by managers, company leaders, or secret shoppers, to ensure that employees are following the rules.
  • Quantitative goals for customer satisfaction that frontline teams must meet.

But even when used in concert, these strategies don’t come close to ensuring quality in every interaction. Rulebooks and key driver analyses can’t anticipate every possible situation or customer request. Inspections measure isolated moments in time. And abstract numerical goals are good motivators only when an employee is at immediate risk of missing the mark. In the course of a typical day, very few employees will think, “I wonder how I can wow this customer so I can bump up my average score?”
These gaps won’t come as a surprise to any customer-centric executive. Yet short of assigning every frontline employee a private coach, an alternate solution can be hard to imagine.
What many companies don’t realize is that it is possible to have someone watching over your employees at all times and giving them useful advice. What’s more, they work for free!
These coaches are your customers. In order to start using them in that way, you must give frontline employees easy access to customer feedback so they can learn from it on an ongoing basis.
Here are three ways to think about doing so:
Give employees easy, immediate access to customer feedback about them
When it comes to great service strategies, employees can learn far more—and draw far more motivation—from authentic customer feedback than they ever could from an internal coach or an abstract goal.
The reason comes down to emotion and relevance. It’s one thing to hear secondhand what customers have said. Hearing from a customer directly, soon after the interaction, is a far more effective way to learn. The experience is still fresh in the employee’s mind, making it easier to contextualize the customer’s suggestions. Any company leader who’s taken the time to hear from customers directly understands what an illuminating experience it can be. Why should frontline employees be any different?
A little guidance from frontline managers can bolster this learning process. One leading NPS practitioner company we have heard from uses this simple but effective approach: every month, call center managers select two calls that each of their representatives handled recently—one that resulted in positive feedback, and one that garnered negative feedback. The manager then reviews the calls and feedback with each rep, asks the rep to describe which call was more successful and why they think that was, and talks about what to do differently next time.
Research confirms that when frontline employees engage directly with customer feedback, their performance improves going forward. A 2014 Medallia study of over 200 brands found that the more frequently frontline employees accessed customer feedback, the higher the brand’s NPS. Similarly, a 2015 study of over 4,000 hotel properties found that the more frequently each property accessed its own feedback, the more its occupancy rate grew over the next year.
Empower employees to respond to feedback and solve problems
In addition to providing excellent behavioral coaching, customer feedback often reveals problems that need to be handled in the moment. When frontline teams observe such problems in the feedback they see, someone on the team—for example, a store manager or shift leader—should be empowered to reach out and solve it without going through a centralized customer service team.
This is a gut-churning prospect for many company leaders. If employees are allowed to reach out to unhappy customers on their own, who knows what crazy, costly solutions they’ll resort to?
Excessive variability on the frontline is certainly cause for concern. But we’ve found that a bigger and more common issue is frontline employees not taking ownership of problems to which they contributed. We believe that if most company leaders are being honest, they want their employees to take the initiative when something goes wrong. Following up on customer feedback is one of the best ways for frontline employees to do so. And since they were likely closer to the problem than someone on a centralized customer care team, they’re probably better suited to find a solution.
Some companies go all in on such empowerment—including The Ritz-Carlton, which gives employees discretionary funds with which to resolve customer issues, and Zappos, whose customer service reps send flowers, gifts, and even free merchandise to customers who have had a problem. Windstream Communications, an American telecommunications firm, takes a different approach. The company encourages its technicians to give their cell phone numbers to customers, who can ask follow-up questions and request additional services without having to go through a call center or scheduling system.
Give employees extra help when handling tricky feedback
Some customer problems will be relatively simple for frontline employees to resolve, whether through an apology, a repair, or a replacement. Others—for example, if fulfillment center issues are leading to shipping delays—won’t be so simple.
Similarly, the occasional customer will, in his or her feedback, request a solution your employees aren’t able to provide. The request might violate a rule. It might also just be unfeasible.
In these situations, it’s important that frontline employees are able to escalate the feedback to someone better suited to handle it. Part of this involves removing friction: Is there a system that allows the employee to easily pass along the feedback and track what’s being done about it? Reach is another important element. When employees escalate a problem, will it reach only people within their operational silo, or will it be accessible to whoever in the company needs it?
Strong frontline performance depends on more than just frontline empowerment. Ideally, other departments shouldn’t have to rely solely on the frontline to escalate cross-functional issues. And when one employee thinks of an inspired, unexpected solution, there should be a system that allows others to learn from that employee’s success.
But companies grappling with the basic question of monitoring and managing their frontline can’t afford to leave informed and empowered employees out of the equation.
Here are several questions to consider as you chart your course:

  • If I were to ask my frontline employees if they are doing a better job serving customers this week compared to last week, where would they look for proof?
  • How does our company hold employees accountable for handling customer problems that emerge in the real world? What about problems that customer feedback brings to employees’ attention?
  • Which is my current feedback system better at: providing research and analytical tools to help headquarters identify high-level key drivers, or helping frontline teams resolve issues for their customers and share best practices?
  • What percentage of my frontline supervisors have been trained to close the loop with unhappy customers, apologize appropriately, probe for the root cause, solve it if possible—and pass along relevant lessons when appropriate?
  • What percentage of my detractor customers receive a follow-up from frontline staff within 24 to 48 hours of providing feedback?
Photo Credit: Boxing AIBA