From Frontline to C-Suite: The Untapped Goldmine Between Frontline Employees and Voice of the Customer Programs

Unlock the potential of frontline employees to enhance your Voice of the Customer program and drive insights directly to the C-suite.

Remember the game of telephone, where each participant would whisper in the next person’s ear what they thought the previous person said? Inevitably, the message the tenth person got might as well have been in another language compared to the original statement. 

It’s both a process and a translation problem. Rudimentary methods with too many steps.

Now, imagine the distance and choke points between a customer’s feelings and a CEO’s ears? As the head of a large retail client recently expressed to me, “Our (store) employees are the people having the longest and most intimate conversations with our customers. Why aren’t we taking better advantage of that?”

The big question at play is: How do we leverage the hundreds of thousands of high-touch interactions between employees and customers to better inform the products, experiences, and services we create?

If that’s not a big enough question to noodle on as is, we have to layer in a couple trends (and one forever reality) that are adding to the complexity of the opportunity.

The Forever Reality – No One Can Be Everything, Everywhere, All At Once

No matter what a store visit and photo op might portray, a CEO (be it at Starbucks, Uber, or Taco Bell) can’t be in every staff’s shoes at all times. At some point, empathy becomes lip service, or at the very least, a distant memory. We know this because frontline workers make up 70% of the workforce, but—from an HBR article, “Not surprisingly, the CEOs in our study spent less time with lower-level managers (14%, on average) and even less time with rank-and-file employees (about 6%, on average).”

Resource Constraints

Not only is it impossible for leaders to be at the tip of the spear of customer engagements for longer than a nod and a smile, budgets are being slashed for employee listening, employee engagement, and VoC programs at a moment when customer expectations are changing faster than ever before.

Return To IRL

Sadly, the pandemic was the death nail for a lot of brick and mortar stores, or it at least forced them online, but now customers are remerging like a cicada brood, hungry for IRL interactions and experiences. This is opening new opportunities to rethink how retail and physical customer touchpoints can operate.

Don’t fret. We assure you there’s a path through (and ways to turn what seem like hurdles into springboards). From our POV, the two most important things for organizations to do are:

  1. Empower staff to facilitate deeper conversations with customers
  2. Better equip staff with a clear conduit for sharing what they’ve heard

We’re talking about providing training and tools that uplift the untapped connection between the Voice of the Customer and employee experience.

But Andy, you already know we don’t have the budget for any of this!

I do. That’s why we have to flip it on its head. We have to use what are perceived disadvantages into advantages. Here are three:

Employee Demand For New Types Of Talent Mobility + Development

Employees want to explore different roles, see different parts of an organization, and accelerate their career growth. With many traditional talent development models either becoming outdated or out of reach due to budget constraints, an enormous opportunity has emerged to rethink  how we can create exposure and new experiences in less traditional ways.

Multi Generational Workforces Colliding

There are more generations in the workforce at the same time than ever before. This should mean that organizations are able to tap insights, experience, and ideas at a myriad of vantage points—instead of just being an arena for memes about boomers and Gen-Z. (data or article for this?)

AI Is Here To Stay

While there might be fear of losing the human touch, AI research and insights capabilities can make information overload and analysis paralysis maladies of the past. With the rise of AI, quickly capturing, synthesizing, and distilling large swaths of customer data into useful insights is at your fingertips. It’s an instant customer listening program.

Bringing This All To Life

These might feel like disparate ingredients to a customer experience strategy or an employee listening program so I wanted to share a few illustrative ways in which the above approaches could be operationalized. (Yes these are free ideas; just don’t forget us if you decide you want to test any of them!)

Upskill your employees on deep listening

Build better listening and question asking skills across key staff segments for rich employee insights. (Here is a more in-depth look at a few ways to build deep employee listening into your organizational culture)

Build a culture of facilitative leadership

Embed new leadership skills to create work environments that are centered on deep listening, direct communication, collaborative problem solving, and co-creation. Adapt these modern leadership models into critical customer facing using parts of your organization. (Here is an example of how this type of program came to life with one of our Fortune 100 technology clients)

Prototype an AI powered frontline employee insights engine

Arm your larger employee base—and specifically customer facing ‘frontline’ employees—with baseline employee listening and research skills and then build an AI-fueled VoC platform to synthesize and distill key insights that can inform strategy, product, and marketing decisions.

Activate customer co-creation and community building at the frontlines

Train frontline, customer-facing employees with facilitation skills and empower them to design and execute community listening and co-creation events.

Embed cross-functional co-creation moments into your most important upcoming projects

Encourage teams to lead co-creation sessions with customer groups to better inform new products, services, and campaigns. (Here is an example of how co-creation was used to accelerate a product decision, save some at-risk customer relationships, and save millions of dollars at the same time)

Employee empathy communication campaigns

Highlight the stories of your employees in internal and external communications to build more authentic connection with your customers.

Reimagine your frontline spaces to become brand hubs

Identify ways that your offices, stores, and physical footprints can be reimagined to act as customer listening and co-creation spaces.

Build a Voice of the Customer advisory panel

Find a set of 8-12 customers that you can call on for insight, feedback, and co-creation at key decision points or project milestones. Compensate them for their time, or find creative ways to add value for them (free product, a case study or title to share on their LinkedIn profile, participation in skills building events, etc.). You don’t need to overdesign this. Keep it simple (low-cost, low-effort) and starting building the behaviors of how to use it. You can always expand over time.

Everyday, no matter how constrained your resources are, your employees and your customers are having substantial interactions. Integrating employee listening training and Voice of the Customer programs like we’ve described can help fill the gap that traditional (and costly) research methods and consultants would normally provide.

The unexpected upside? Your leaders and employees are already seeking new ways to develop professionally and experience different parts of the company. The examples we’ve given you can create ‘non-vertical’ growth opportunities that are low-investment but high-impact. (case study here)

Webs of highly engaged employees empowered, and equipped, to communicate effectively and translate findings quickly up the chain will be able to handle the reemergence and ever-demanding needs of a hungry customer base.

Happy employees, happy customers.

Andy Hagerman
[email protected]

Andy Hagerman is one of the co-founders and partners at The Design Gym, a strategy and innovation consultancy helping leaders to grow their business by fully unlocking the power of their most important advantage: their people. We work at the intersection of business strategy, experience design, and change management to engage the people that matter most to your work: your customers, your leaders, and your employees. See something that resonates with a project or challenge you're working on? Shoot him a note at [email protected].

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