Frontline employees consider the guidance of their supervisors as important support to speak up with their ideas for improving customer experiences, but they feel that the support of coworkers is more important. Scientific researchers therefore recommend supervisors to create an environment that leads to the establishment of strong, mutually trusting relationships among frontline employees.
In their report ‘Why do frontline employees speak up on behalf of customers? The influence of supervisors versus coworkers and the role of intrapersonal factors‘ scientists tell about their findings after extensively surveying nurses and supervisors of Brazilian hospitals, during three different time periods. It turns out that the impact on innovation of managers and supervisors is less important than numerous international organizations think. Improving the customer experience is more a result of discussions and knowledge exchange between co-workers than the management methods of their superiors. Both have impact, but the former has more significant influence.
‘Customer focused voice’
Thus empowering frontline employees, by giving them room and a stage to speak up and discuss daily things together, is very important for the innovation potential of a company. The researchers expressed their amazement that in the scientific literature, there is a lack of attention and appreciation for the fact that frontline employees can speak up on behalf of customers and as such push the company forward.
“The importance of the ‘customer focused voice’ to firm performance is nearly self-evident and thus the lack of attention it has received in the literature is surprising. Given the constant interactions that frontline employees have with customers, they are in a unique position to gather the type of marketing intelligence necessary for enhancing the customer experience and, by extension, customer and firm outcomes. Indeed, when employees speak up on behalf of their customers they add knowledge and insights to the organizational learning.”
Examples of frontline empowering organizations
Therefore they refer to successful organizations that do recognize the importance and value of frontline employees:
- Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos leaves an empty seat at meetings for employees who want to represent the “customer voice”.
- Starbucks assigned 48 employees to engage with customers on their MyStarbucksIdea blog and move ideas upward.
- McDonalds’ and Singapore Airlines developed the “Egg McMuffin” and “Book the Cook” services respectively through suggestion involvement programs that rely heavily on frontline service workers.
- The Mayo Clinic of Scottsdale allows nurses to question any doctor’s diagnosis and decisions through the “Plus One” protocol. Coincidentally, the hospital was named by Consumer Reports (2012) the safest teaching hospital in the U.S.
Managerial recommendation 1: create a culture of trust and respect
To ensure that employees engage, it is not enough for managers to be supportive of subordinates or for them to suggest that they are “open” to new ideas on how to improve. Frontline employees need to be in an environment in which coworkers share a sense of mutual respect and trust so that frontline employees will feel “safe enough” to express their concerns. Supervisors should strive to create an environment in which team members trust and mutually respect each other. Toward that end, managers should embed themselves within teams so they can develop a firsthand understanding of team dynamics and about how teams develop over time.
Managerial recommendation 2: increase the confidence of frontline employees
Organizational efforts to build strong relationships among coworkers is not enough. The sharing of ideas and feedback is far more likely when employees are confident they have the knowledge necessary to contribute valuable ideas for improving the customer experience.
Such confidence comes from an employees’ ability to step into customers’ shoes and intimately understand their needs and preferences. Hence, to ensure employees speak up with constructive ideas, managers should recruit and train.
Managerial recommendation 3: let frontline employees challenge the status quo
The results also reveal that managers rate employees more highly when they engage more frequently in idea sharing. Extending this line of reasoning to the company level this result implies that companies should encourage, within reason, frontline employees to challenge the status quo. The benefits of doing so are at least apparent to frontline managers.