Listen to front-line workers

Employees who deal directly with customers have valuable insights

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Last year I wrote a series of articles focused on helping businesses create a winning game plan.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/08/2021 (470 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Last year I wrote a series of articles focused on helping businesses create a winning game plan.

A major component of creating a winning game plan is building off the business fundamentals of taking care of your customers and your employees. While a focus on fundamentals is always a good approach, I want to dive deeper into where you can find untapped gold from your customers and employees who can help you create additional success.

Your front-line staff deal with customers on a regular basis. These interactions result in valuable insights and anecdotes that can help an organization understand how their product or service assists their customers to get their jobs done. People don’t buy a product or service just because they like it. It is because they have some type of job to be done. Needs aren’t vague and unknowable, they are how customers measure success when getting a job done. Are you collecting this data to build an improved understanding of your customers’ wants and needs based on the job they need done?

In my experience, one of the reasons that unsuccessful companies do not capture this data is that senior leaders do not believe what the front-line staff are saying. This is somewhat reminiscent of the news correspondents that were in Vietnam during that war.

Many of these journalists were situated in the centre of the action and wrote their first-hand accounts based on these experiences. Yet, the U.S. commander, General William Westmoreland, was not convinced of the accuracy of these reports and did not listen to his front-line leaders, who were providing their input based on direct interactions with the enemy. Westmoreland convinced President Lyndon Johnson that his assessment was correct, not what was being written in the papers or described by legendary newsman Walter Cronkite after he toured the action.

Business leaders can serve their customers and their employees better if they get out of their offices and personally see what is going on, listen to employee input, and read the customer feedback. My recommendation is to do this humbly and as objectively as possible. Park your ego and see what you can uncover from the front lines.

You can host a session with your employees and listen to the feedback they have received from customers about what they need, and what job they may be trying to do. Be genuine and human as you listen and only ask questions for clarification. The objective is for you to learn something that a financial statement would not tell you.

The best staff are the most helpful and ask questions first and listen before they suggest. They want to understand what the customer really needs done, and they want to make sure that the problem is being solved. Their clarification questions are their approach to doing this. And the exceptional staff make it easy for the customer to get the right product or service.

You can also host a customer roundtable discussion. Again, your approach should be to listen and only ask questions when needing to clarify. Another option is to mystery shop your own company or hire an outside firm to perform this task.

You will be amazed at the strength of your employees and how well they deal with customers. You may also be surprised when you learn your policies or procedures are not customer-friendly.

Great companies also know that validating sales or financial data with real customer data is essential to ensuring a holistic view of the business. Collecting this feedback from multiple data points can inform the strategic planning process so that a sound and well-executed strategy is formed around helping customers get their job done. Failing to validate the data that most organizations build their strategy around will lead to a “credibility gap.” This gap is created when the data used in their plan is not complete. A bleaker situation will occur if their data is wrong.

A customer’s actions based on a need will create a sale. Understanding this need is essential for any organization to increase their sales. Analyzing trends in sales results will not provide the necessary insight to know what customers need in the future. When your business fundamentals include a strong understanding of the job the customer needs done, the better positioned you are for future success. Trust your employees to help provide this insight because they deal with customers every day.

Tim’s bits: Strong leadership requires care and listening skills with customers and employees. Seek first to understand before jumping to conclusions or trying to validate your opinion.

A Forrester research study found that 91 per cent of leaders believe their organization is customer-focused.

However, only 10 per cent of customers believe these same companies are customer-focused. Since it costs about six times as much to acquire a new customer than to keep a current customer, you should focus on listening to employees to help better serve current customers.

Here is a business fundamental reminder — what’s good for the customer is good for the business.

Tim Kist is a Certified Management Consultant, authorized by law, and a Fellow of the Institute of Certified Management Consultants of Manitoba.

Tim Kist

Tim Kist
Columnist

Tim is a certified management consultant with more than two decades of experience in various marketing and sales leadership positions.

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