Opinion Leaders: Front-line Managers

I have concern. While good deal of time is spent establishing key per-formance indicators, introducing risk management strategies, engaging in corporate structure reviews and so on, little emphasis is placed on executives spending quality time on the front line of their organisations communicating with their most important asset – their customers.

These days, most organisations, have well-developed programmes to promptly promote staff who show ambition and potential, invariably moving them away from working with the customer. Have we gone too far to reverse the process and perhaps look at how organisations can promote towards the front line? Why is the organisational front line still training ground for new recruits?

The problem perhaps stems from the increased complexity of demands now dumped on senior managers all in the name of sophistication and often couched in the latest management jargon. (Could we perhaps replace the current trend for risk managers with some risk takers? – real management challenge for executives.) What this means is that substantial parts of an enterprise never come into contact with either the organisation’s source of revenue or experience the company’s offering from the customer’s perspective.

The well-advanced trend toward automated customer relationship management using call centres, automated telephone systems, email and the like, is creating dangerous gap between organisation and customer.

I recently responded to advertising by two national organisations. Unfortunately for them, the net effect of their advertising expenditure, product discounts and point of sale expense, has been to significantly damage their reputation because of their poor follow-through in front-line service.

How does management solve the problem? Some approaches work better than others. The boss sometimes spends day on the front line and suggests others follow the example. The enthusiasm rarely lasts however. short stint makes it difficult to fully participate in the environment and doing it alone means experiences are not enthusiastically shared. Leaders returning from their front-line experience are seen as having “got religion”. Leave them alone for while and it will wear off, returning eventually to the executive fold.

The following approach works for me. The chief executive and full executive team spend an extended time together doing the front-line job. Impossible? Ask yourself: what is more important than executives of an organisation really experiencing the systems, processes and training they give to front-line staff? It is not impossible. We did it in three organisations.

The New Zealand Employment Service senior management team ran central Auckland employment centre on its own for week. The Income Support Service senior executives ran the front-line supervisor and customer reception functions within South Auckland office and the following year in provincial city, again for week. The TAB executive team ran TAB agency for week, operated terminal in the telephone betting centre in the evenings and then operated the tote at the Saturday races. Within each organisation the practice became an annual event.

In preparing for the week in the field, the entire executive team had to learn the systems and processes of the organisation. We arrived on Sunday evening nervously anticipating the handover on Monday morning. Then we opened the doors to curious world. On Friday evening we handed the business back.

The philosophical thinking behind keeping the team together for the week ensures executives gain collective view of the issues. By week’s end they are enthusiastic about pursuing solutions.

These experiences were pivotal to our future as perceptions of our management competence were generally dented by the experience of confronting operational problems that our decisions had often caused. We recognised issues that needed urgent attention to both improve customer and staff environments, and invariably reduced costs.

Customer reaction was interesting. Most of them appreciated our courage and were tolerant of our inexperience.

Executives gained confidence in their understanding of the business’ operations. It is probably one of the best and most cost-effective team-building exercises any organisation can do. Executive teams are placed at the head of organisations to manage the total environment – too often the front-line element is neglected.
Consumers are increasingly focused on authenticity and honesty of service. Maintaining customer loyalty through service quality will not be achieved until managers re-prioritise customer service as key management competency.

In the best Italian restaurants, the owner is always out front in the customer environment. It gives me confidence in the experience – I wish I felt as confident elsewhere. M

George Hickton, FNZIM, is chief executive of Tourism New Zealand.

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