Exploring the Latest in Frontline Empowerment

Companies like Gap, IKEA, and Wal-Mart are raising wages for their frontline employees-a critical first step to employee engagement. Exceptional service, however, begins with an internal culture that values staff over profits.
Employee Engagement

When Gravity Payments' founder Dan Price announced last week that he'd be cutting his own income in an effort to boost the companywide minimum wage to $70,000, the Seattle-based credit card payment-processing firm launched itself to the fore of an ongoing debate about the omnipresent pay gap. In recent months, big-name retailers, such as Wal-Mart, have been at the center of the movement to increase frontline minimum wage and improve employee satisfaction. Companies have come to recognize that guaranteeing the living wage is the critical first step on the path toward superior customer service and higher employee retention rates.

Brad Smith, executive vice president for global customer experience at Sage North America, says, "A living wage is very important for anyone doing service or knowledge tasks. Paying your customer service staff well helps them feel worthy, honored, and like they're a valuable associate to your company. The money you'd save from low wages wouldn't counterbalance the loss of future customer business, the decrease in customer loyalty, or the increase in bad referrals."

But it's no longer enough for companies to simply put their money where their mouths are. Engagement and empowerment go far beyond dollar signs, as employee value cannot be limited to monetary worth. Protesters across the country have transformed the fight for higher wages into an all-out social movement that emphasizes the economic disparities across the frontline. Therefore, leaders must demonstrate their understanding and appreciation by implementing the programs and strategies that support growth and education across all levels of their organization.

Lara Ponomareff, senior director for CEB , highlights that the shifting nature of frontline work requires employees to put forth more effort than ever before. While straightforward processes and policies once defined frontline tasks, incoming customer issues and expectations are now increasingly complex, making frontline service roles exceedingly stressful as workers struggle to juggle the priorities of the company and customer. Trying to work through more subjective issues and uncovering underlying customer motivations requires different types of employees and internal cultures than in the past, leaving companies scrambling to attract and retain people who are best-fit employees for today's frontline positions.

Deloitte's recent "Global Human Capital Trends 2015" report indicates that 87 percent of organizations view culture and engagement as one of their top challenges. Thus, 66 percent of human resources teams are actively updating their employee engagement and retention strategies to advance perceptions and satisfaction. Ponomareff suggests that leaders should begin by actively listening to employees, as general feedback queries aren't as actionable. Frame these discussions around aspects that make it difficult for staff to carry out tasks. Encouraging employees to focus on the specific root causes of their inefficiencies and proposing possible improvements will enable all concerned parties throughout the enterprise to establish processes and policies that serve the greater good. Ultimately, at their core, employees want recognition and appreciation for their consistent efforts. Brands that keep the communication loop transparent and open will also promote increased employee engagement and perpetual internal progress.

Foundational Concepts Engender Engagement

Before companies can empower, they must engage. Employees must be invested in the organization and their role if they are to deliver the desired level of customer service. Therefore, brands must focus on establishing the three foundational elements that support efficiency and growth:

Climate: Today's higher performing employees value an environment that's responsive to their changing needs and those of the business, says Ponomareff. Leaders should create an atmosphere that values team learning and performance so staff can learn from each other and work together to achieve high quality customer outcomes. Companies, however, should also identify and hire applicants that are the best fit for both the role and the culture. Often times, engagement problems aren't due to the lack of or poor tactics. Instead, they arise from hiring poor-fit employees who fail to thrive in the given environment no matter the focus on engagement strategies. Leaders must look beyond the silo of engagement or hiring to create an overarching, interconnected talent management strategy that promotes success.

Measurement: In most cases, employees are now being asked to craft high-quality customer experiences and support customer centricity, while still being tied to strict efficiency metrics, such as call length. Thus, most are unable to achieve customer goals because they're being measured against conflicting metrics. It's increasingly important to align measurement systems with the company's overall goals, as doing so often inherently reduces costs, such as repeat calls and escalations. Smith also notes that companies can't limit their metrics, for they want well-rounded, thinking employees who understand the company and their role as brand ambassador. The only way leaders can establish whether or not frontline employees are serving the company well is to have near- and long-term interaction scores that assess performance.

Management: If managers and supervisors are not enabling, coaching, and supporting frontline workers, success cannot be sustained. "Managers who are truly focused on their people create engaged employees who deliver great customer service and create customer loyalty," says Gary Magenta, author of "The Un-Bossy Boss" and senior vice president at Root, Inc. "When this occurs, employees are successful, the business metrics are successful, and employees are motivated to continue their career. Employees are reliant on their managers for success, and because managers have the multiplier effect on business, leaders must focus on giving managers the knowledge and tools to be effective coaches that create engaged and motivated frontline employees who are capable of delivering exceptional customer service."

Transformative Initiatives Drive Empowerment

For continued development and innovation, brands must improve employee retention and attention by investing in the very engagement strategies that support empowerment and exceptional service. Workers are the heart and soul of any given company and, as David Stover, head of B2C omnichannel commerce, solution management, at hybris, emphasizes, organizations must treat frontline employees with the same level of attention they show customers. They need to invest in employee education, not just their wallets. Thus, leaders must implement these three transformative initiatives to support and advance the mind and body of all frontline staff:

Head: To demonstrate their dedication to employee satisfaction and retention, executives must boost frontline employee capabilities by training and equipping them with mobile technologies and contextual insights. Workers can't read minds, but with the right tools, these employees can satisfy intentions and exceed expectations by improving their ability to deliver exceptional customer experiences.

Heart: In the spirit of service, companies should make engagement fun by incentivizing workers to adopt behaviors that curate better customer journeys. By crafting an exciting environment, employees will wake up in the morning with an eager sense of anticipation, not dread and reluctance. Also, gamification adds an element of competition that pushes employees to offer superior customer service and playfully engage with their fellow coworkers.

Wallet: Compensation and opportunity are crucial in an environment where employee roles continue to change dramatically and frequently. Broadening both income and growth potential parallels the frontline employees' broadening responsibilities, thereby recognizing their talent and their value to the company itself. By investing in career growth, leaders also enable workers to cross-pollinate their expertise to break down internal silos, for it's difficult to support the seamless customer journey if internal operations aren't seamless, as well.

However, for leaders who truly want to get to the root of employee discontent, executives must walk in their shoes by spending time in the field working with frontline associates directly. Only then will they truly understand the daily customer service challenges these employees face. Direct communications and authenticity are also critical, as employees know when leaders genuinely care. By getting their hands dirty and putting themselves on the frontline, executives can effectively convey company values and express appreciation for all the effort these employees invest every single day.