frontline employees

“We suck at that!” Those were the words uttered by a customer service representative from my health insurance company when I called to inquire about out-of-network claims that were not being processed correctly. When I asked why it’s so complicated to get the claims handled properly and according to my plan, the representative bluntly replied “We suck at that!”

Even though her choice of words surprised me, I appreciated her honesty. It’s obvious from my prior experiences and phone calls that the company does a poor job of handling these claims. Her statement validated my frustration, but also left me feeling disheartened.

As the customer, I felt disappointed to hear my own frustrations echoed by a customer service representative who I had hoped would be able to help me. As a business professional specializing in brand and company culture, I was surprised that an employee would so candidly throw her company under the bus in front of a customer. However, if you look at the situation from her point of view, she probably felt like her hands were tied. And she has more than likely heard similar complaints from customers many times. How else would she know that “we suck at that”?

Frustrations May Be Hard to Hide From Customers

Frustration among frontline employees can often result in actions and conversations that are detrimental to a brand. The phrase she used in our interaction wasn’t overly shocking, but it definitely wasn’t professional, and it didn’t do any favors for the brand she represents. I already have low impressions of this brand, and this interaction only served to underscore my opinions. There are many other stories around social media of employees doing and saying far worse during a customer interaction.

Most companies have at least a few weaknesses when it comes to delivering a seamless customer experience. Many of the weaknesses are probably pretty apparent to leaders, but some may not be as obvious. Walking in the shoes of frontline employees can reveal some of the gaps that are breaking down the experience and impacting the brand. While it’s natural for leaders to feel like they know their audiences better than anyone, the true experts are often the people who interact with customers every single day.

Ask those frontline employees what they hear during customer interactions. What frustrations do customers express most often? Where do employees feel like they are unsupported in addressing concerns, and what roadblocks do they see? Do they have ideas for what would make it better?

Frontline Employees Often Understand Customer Frustrations

While frontline employees are not experts in brand strategy or operational processes, they are the boots on the ground with customers. They hear things that may not be obvious in customer surveys and focus groups. Most will appreciate the opportunity to contribute, and these moments can also be leveraged to increase their understanding of the brand they represent.

Even if you can’t quickly or easily fix the issues they face, knowing they’ve been heard will often go a long way toward preventing their own frustrations from surfacing during customer interactions. It builds value for their contributions and can go a long way toward developing a strong culture that aligns behind the promise to customers.

For more thoughts on how to design the customer experience, be sure to check out our position paper:

Designing the Customer Experience

About Alice Wright

As Director of Content Strategy, Alice directs projects while also designing program strategy and instructional content. She has more than 22 years of experience managing integrated strategic marketing, communication and training programs for globally recognized brands. Some of her current and past clients include Nike, Sunglass Hut, Safeway, Banfield Pet Hospital, Office Depot, Unilever, LensCrafters, EMC, Intel, Microsoft, Dell, adidas, Joann Stores and others. Alice earned her bachelor’s degree from the School of Journalism and Communication at University of Oregon. She lives with her husband and teenage son in Portland, Oregon where she loves exploring the outdoors and being a soccer/band mom.