Perspective. If we are to improve the performance of human worlds (couple, family, neighbourhood, team, department, business, nation…) perspective taking is essential. It occurs to me that the simplest form of perspective taking is attentive-receptive listening to those who find themselves embedded in the human world that one is interested in. The deepest from of perspective taking is to enter into the lives, and live the lives, of those whose perspective one wishes to become intimately familiar with.
What did I learn when listened to the perspective (lived experience) of frontline retail employees who work for one of the big UK retailers?
On many days the store is short-staffed. Those who are present and ready for work find themselves stressed. The standards are high – for merchandising, store cleanliness, customer service… There is a lot to get done. The pressure is on. This calls people to take short-cuts (including putting their health & safety at risk), bypass policies and practices to do that which needs to be done.
The folks dealing with customers on the frontline are not adequately trained – as in training that comes through apprenticeship. Why are they not adequately trained? Because the stores are short-staffed. Due to the short-staffing, the pressure is on to throw new frontline employees into the deep end. This places the new employees under stress: these employees face demanding customers, they are aware that their colleagues are counting on them, they know that their manager is judging them, and they are intimately aware that they lack the contextual understanding and experimental know-how to do things well. They do their best. And their best is not enough. They are aware that their best is enough.
Folks distant and cut-off from the reality of the world of the store (that particular store) make decisions for that store. These decisions whilst sound in theory are impractical given the reality of that store. Yet the folks in that store – including the manager of that store – have no power to affect or challenge these decisions. So there are substantial and frequent store refreshes and not enough staff to merely do the day to day tasks. The product range is expanded and there is not enough shelf space. Customers complain of products not being in stock yet the replenishment decisions are made by computers and remote others in charge of store replenishment. New machinery is introduced that does not fit well into the store and makes lives harder for the folks in the store …. All of this increases the level of stress experienced by the folks working in the stores.
Customers are demanding at best, rude at their worst. They demand perfection: a seamless experience. They are encouraged in this demanding-ness by the folks higher up in the business who designate and promote services (and service standards) which are impractical given the reality of that store. Folks serving these customers want to provide a good service and experience a certain kind of human encounter with customers. Yet, they find themselves in a reality in which providing merely an average customer experience is all that can be reasonably provided. They experience the withering look of many customers. And some customers, more and more these days, who are condescending, critical, and rude. All of this increases the level of stress experienced by these front line employees.
Their employer and their manager does not care for them. The folks experience themselves as not appreciated, not valued, not loved. It is not just that these folks are paid the minimum wage. It is not just that if they arrive five minutes late for work then fifteen minutes of pay is docked. It is not that they are expected to stay up to half an hour later than their shift and they do not get paid for this half an hour. It is not that they are not adequately trained. It is not just that they are rarely given their allotted lunch break. It is more. It is the gap that they experience (on a daily basis) between the way the company expects them to treat customers and the way they are treated by the company. Is it then any surprise that the stores are regularly and frequently short-staffed – in numbers and in terms of experience/cable employees? Who wants to work in such an environment? And even those who do work in such an environment quit as soon as the can quit.
If you are working in an organisation and concerned about improving the customer experience, I end by posing the following questions:
- Are the folks that work for us and with us less worthy of care, consideration, and respect than folks upon whom we change the label Customer?
- What is the likelihood that at a distance voice of the customer surveys unconceal the kind of reality that I have shared with you here – the reality of the folks interacting directly with customers?
- Do your customer journey maps give you an adequate feel for the lives of customers and the lives of the people on the front lines who interact with your customers on a daily basis?
If you are a customer then ask you to be mindful of human worth and dignity in your dealings with the folks that serve you – especially when things are not going right. I ask you to consider that the person is not merely an employee. S/he is a human being who is doing the best s/he can given the circumstances s/he finds herself in. If you were in h/er position you would most likely do that which s/he is doing. A kind word can light up the world.
I thank you for your listening it is that which continues to call me to share my speaking with you. I leave you to grapple with what I have shared and make it mean that which you make it mean