Listen to Your Frontline Employees
A basic prerequisite for business success is to know — really know — your customers. There’s a variety of traditional research methods aimed at better understanding customers: usage analysis, conjoint analysis, cluster analysis, roundtables, panels.
But there are a few reasons why traditional research sometimes fails to deliver: 1) Customers don’t always say what is really on their mind; 2) Customers often don’t know what they don’t know; and 3)Those conducting the research may bias results with the types of questions they are asking (wrong questions mean wrong answers).
During a recent hotel stay I was reminded of these limits by a shower that splashed water on the bathroom floor no matter what I did to try and prevent it. The problem was poorly positioned shower controls and shower head. Every day the bathroom floor would get soaked as I turned on the water. Don’t the people designing these things think about this stuff?
A more anthropological approach to customer research might have helped here. There’s a variety of ethnographic consulting firms that use observatory data-collection methods ranging from video to “day-in-the-life” immersion with a targeted user. But most executives don’t take advantage of the best anthropological consultants already employed — their frontline employees. It’s the employees who are closest to serving and supporting the customer who get an unfiltered view of how customers interact with a product or service.
These frontline workers tend to sit at the lower end of the organizational totem pole, meaning their views are often overlooked. But if you take a moment to think about it, some of the best sources of observatory research can come from those at first point of customer contact or first point postcustomer contact: waiters and bus boys (e.g. most frequently asked food items and most frequently unfinished food items); sales floor personnel and customer service reps (e.g. where people first go to in the store and what frustrates the customer the most); receptionists and cleaning staff (e.g. who is happy coming and leaving).
With the faulty shower in my hotel room, I wondered if management spent any time asking housekeeping for feedback. It’s the housekeepers who know which bathrooms are the biggest pains to clean — and which bathroom mats are consistently soaked A wet bathroom floor surely frustrates the housekeeper, too, not to mention increasing the hotel’s service costs. Would it have been helpful if the hotel’s cleaning and maintenance personnel had a process to voice their observations and recommendations to management? You bet.
Relying on the insights and observations of your frontline folks is good business. As the Wall Street Journal reported recently, the lifestyle apparel company Lululemon stations its clothes folders next to the changing rooms not just because it makes logistical sense, but because it gives them an opportunity to hear customers expressing their clothing likes and dislikes.
As I discussed this post with a colleague, he said it reminded him of some of the principles of Total Quality Management (TQM). I did a quick Google review of TQM, and sure enough, it includes a focus on quality and customer satisfaction at every level of an organization. Whether it is part of a formal TQM program or simply a key input towards better understanding your customers, find the time to listen to the voice of your frontline employees. If you don’t, you’ll know less about your customers than you should.