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Freeing Your Frontline Prisoners Liberates Your Profits by Michael D. Brown
DiversityBusiness.com Magazine Article/- As we all know, it is an unfortunate reality that many times, negative experience is life’s best teacher. That was certainly true in my case when it came to learning about how to excite and motivate your Frontline Employees to provide a World-Class Customer Experience to every customer who walks through the door. Let me begin by explaining how I found myself trapped in a Frontline Prison shortly after I graduated from college.

My first full-time job after graduating from Jackson State University School of Business was Multi-Unit Manager at the Majestic Company (the name that we will use in lieu of the real name) located in Little Rock, Arkansas. I knew from the moment I entered the company for my first job interview that this situation would be trouble.

First of all, the job description was pretty vague, which usually means that you will be overworked, underpaid and a jack-of-all-trades. Secondly, all of the stores and concessions seemed to be bustling with people, though the Frontline Employees had two speeds: slow and stop. None of the Frontline Employees seemed to be really excited about their jobs.

Then I met the General Manager, who I will call Mr. Wallace Wright. Mr. He used his pointing finger pretty regularly during the conversation. I extended my hand and he offered me a seat.

Mr. Wallace Wright spent the next twenty minutes reciting his resume and his accomplishments with the company; he talked in length about how he knew the business better than anyone and how he was a star performer. I knew then that I needed to quickly change my planned strategy, which was to tell him about the value that I could bring to his business, how I could motivate and develop the team, and how I could grow the bottom line.

Instead, I opted to talk about how much I would love to work for this fine establishment and how much I would love to be on his team. I also told him that I would really like to deliver in this job and gain the skills and tools needed to become a General Manager.

Anything other than gloating praise of Mr. Wallace Wright and his operation would have gotten me a one-way ticket to Joblessville. I could already tell that Mr. Wallace Wright was not interested in trying innovative ideas and methods to energize his Frontline Employees to provide optimal customer service. He was too busy “Wallacing around,” or simply wallowing in his own ego and ignoring the pressing issues that were threatening the vitality of his business.

When I reported to my first day of work, I met with Wallace and he showed me around the facilities, introduced me to one of the other managers, and took me back into the office. He went on to say that he would train me (this activity never took place) and tell me everything that I needed to know, adding, “If you just do as I say, everything will be fine.” I knew then that I had committed myself to prison.

Wallace’s leadership style was totally opposite of mine. Wallace needed to be in control of my every move and viewed any independent action or thought as insubordination. He treated the male Frontline Managers and Employees like nothing, and it was even worse for the females.

After about a month on the job, employees started regularly coming to me and saying things like, “Michael, you are much too smart to be working here, why are you here… you can do so much better some place else…” I was determined to make a difference, despite Wallace’s style. He came to me one day and stated that I had the highest sales and the employees liked working with me. Despite this positive comment, I was still determined to get myself out of this situation. These were some of the darkest days of my life.

Wallace said in a staff meeting that the employees complained that they couldn't get assistance from any manager except Michael, but he didn't ask what I was doing to assist them. He stated that my sales were 40 percent higher, but did not ask how I got them that way.

Instead, he said the employees didn’t upsell, didn’t take care of the customers in a timely manner, and were not happy when I wasn’t at work. He went on to say that I should be training employees to perform at all times, even when they were working for other managers, and that I was a poor leader. I started to tell him how I motivated people and how I ran my shifts differently, which was a BIG Mistake.

Wallace quickly stopped me and said that I didn’t have authority to change the way things were done and that he was the General Manager. He further said that I was being insubordinate. Though he liked the results I was getting, he didn’t want to hear how I was getting the results. At this point, I just became confused and concluded that I needed to walk on eggshells with Wallace and just sing his praises.

I realized early on that if I wanted to deliver the financial and human results that would make me personally proud and get me noticed by the outside world (at this time I was trying to get promoted to an Assistant GM position at another location), I needed to do this through and with the Frontline Employees.

I also realized that I needed to train them, set the expectations, provide them with tools, empower them, motivate them, inspire them and genuinely care about them while at the same time hold them accountable to delivering a World-Class customer Experience. I further realized that Wallace was only concerned about the bottom line number and cared very little about the Frontline Employees or customers.

So I went on and operated within the box while Wallace was around, but did the “extra” stuff that motivated, empowered and excited the frontline, which in turn delivered a World-Class customer service experience and bottom line numbers that Wallace couldn’t deny were good, while Wallace wasn’t around.

This “extra” stuff really consisted of simple, common sense steps that empowered and motivated the Frontline Employees to offer a World-Class customer experience to everyone who walked through the door. I came to think of these steps as keys that allowed me to unlock and unleash my Frontline Employees from the shackles of incompetent and uncaring management that prevented them from reaching their professional or personal potential on the job.

The first key, Side-By-Side Walking, which I like to describe as walking a mile in the shoes of employees to understand what they do, how they do it, and how they experience their jobs, allowed me to go through an entire shift as a Frontline Employee. In the process I discovered ways to organize closing-up activities that allowed Frontline Employees to offer top-notch customer service right until the last minute of operations without having to stay late.

The second key, Smart Tasking, creating a set of clear expectations and priorities for the staff, enabled me to create a clear-cut checklist of the roles and responsibilities for all Frontline Employees throughout their shifts. Having already used the Side-By-Side Walking key, I was able to devise a list that was based on employee input and the realities of the frontline experience, guaranteeing that it would be efficient and widely accepted. Thus Frontline Employees were no longer chained to performing inconsistent, inefficient tasks.

The third key, Make-It-Right Power, opened the locks preventing Frontline Employees from solving simple customer problems and complaints on the spot, without wasting valuable time searching for a manager to handle the situation. This greatly increased both customer satisfaction and frontline efficiency. The first two keys I utilized had already given me good insight into what kinds of customer issues frequently came up and allowed me to set realistic expectations and priorities, so granting appropriate Make-It-Right Power was not difficult.

The fourth key, the What-If Arsenal, was an official training document that freed Frontline Employees to take initiative and overcome unpredictable problems like having the corporate credit card processing system go down. Wallace saw no need to train the Frontline Employees on the procedure to bypass the credit card system, as “we were not dealing with college graduates.”

Not just a traditional stodgy corporate policy manual, the What-If Arsenal is a living document that is constantly updated as new uncontrollable issues (such as a system malfunction or supply chain disruption) arise. By using the first three keys, I created an atmosphere of freely flowing information and trust between the Frontline Employees and management that made the What-If Arsenal an effective, up-to-date training tool.

The fifth key, Bubble-Up Innovation, involved fresh ideas and contributions from Frontline Employees on how everyone can do things better. When Bubble-Up Innovation is encouraged, appreciated and enacted, it can transform a good organization into a great organization. Ideally, Bubble-Up Innovation begins with a lively, off-site “Bubble-Up Innovation Fun Day,” but Wallace would never have gone for that!

So I employed basic principles of Bubble-Up Innovation on the frontline, such as asking Frontline Employees for their input and holding mini-meetings before shifts to set clear goals. Having already turned the first four keys, I had given the Frontline Employees enough freedom in their daily work lives to generate innovative ideas and spread them throughout the organization.

The sixth key, Relentless Focus, was all about maintaining a steady, persistent, unyielding, and committed focus on providing a World-Class customer service experience 24 hours a day, seven days a week by everyone in the organization. Relentless Focus forces the organization to make an ongoing investment in providing a World-Class customer service experience by embedding it into the core business model. Every program, strategy, and initiative has an automatic space carved out for providing a World-Class customer service experience.

To continue the metaphor of escaping from Frontline Prison, Relentless Focus is the process of making sure that everyone in your organization is using the same set of keys to open the same locks in the same way. Everyone in the organization is shown how to properly insert and turn their keys, and is then tasked with the responsibility of freeing themselves to provide a World-Class customer experience. By the time the Frontline Employees had used their keys to open the first five locks, they were ready and able to accept the responsibility of maintaining Relentless Focus in every aspect of their jobs.

There is a final half-step to implementing Fresh Customer Service in your organization. Step 6.5 is to “now just make it happen.” How I finally escaped from Frontline Prison and entered the free world of Fresh Customer Experience is an instructive lesson in “just making it happen.” Following a blowout argument with Wallace over my method of counting dimes (no, I’m not joking!), I realized I had to leave Majestic Stores for the sake of my career and my sanity. Despite Wallace’s begging and pleading, I escaped from Frontline Prison went to work for a Fortune 100 company that was receptive to my Fresh Customer Service strategies.

I really helped shape the company’s retail offering, customer experience and people development during my career as a Field Manager and in other subsequent roles. My first P&L statement showed that my team and I had grown the business at one location by 46 percent and at another location by 19 percent. The Frontline people were eager to come to work and serve the customers, a rare finding in the retail industry. My performance in this role set me on a career path where I received more than 10 promotions and moved across the country about eight times.

As for the situation I left behind, eventually Wallace’s management style caught up with him and he was fired under a cloud of suspicion. About three years later, during a visit to the state I dropped by the company to say hello. One of my former employees who was now an assistant manger rushed over to me and stated that he was glad to see me. He wanted to introduce me to the other employees. He walked me over and said to a couple of the employees. “This is Michael Brown, he used to be our manager,” he said. “I wish you would have had the opportunity to work with him, things were really different then. He really had us working together and we liked it.”

About DiversityBusiness.com
Launched in 1999, DiversityBusiness, with over 50,000 members, is the largest organization of diversity owned businesses throughout the United States that provide goods and services to Fortune 1000 companies, government agencies, and colleges and universities. DiversityBusiness provides research and data collection services for diversity including the "Top 50 Organizations for Multicultural Business Opportunities", "Top 500 Diversity Owned Companies in America", and others. Its research has been recognized and published by Forbes Magazine, Business Week and thousands of other print and internet publications. The site has gained national recognition and has won numerous awards for its content and design. DiversityBusiness reaches more diverse suppliers and communicates more information to them on a more frequent basis then all other organizations combined. We also communicate with mainstream businesses, government agencies and educational institutions with information related to diversity. Our magazine reaches over 300,000 readers, a monthly e-newsletter that reaches 2.4 million, and website visitors of 1.2 million a month. It is a leading provider of Supplier Diversity management tools and has the most widely distributed Diversity magazine in the United States. DiversityBusiness.com is produced by Computer Consulting Associates International Inc. (CCAii.com) of Southport, CT. Founded in 1980.

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