business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Think about a really good or bad customer experience you have had recently and I bet there was a single reason for it: a front-line employee. Like it or not, most companies build their reputations one experience at a time, and frequently those moments are in the hands of the least experienced and lowest paid employees in the company.

Just ponder that for a second. If you had a great stay at a hotel, it probably had a lot to do with the quality of the reception you got on checking in and the invisible work done when your room was cleaned. A great restaurant meal certainly drew on the skills of the chef, but just as likely the server was a big part of the moment. And in the supermarket, most people might cite the quality of their experience in how they were treated by a checkout worker or a stock clerk.

Whether we like it or not, those gaudy or paltry ratings for supermarkets in Consumer Reports that Kevin wrote about last week were largely based on pricing, quality of some key perishables and the overall interactions with staff. And usually that staff is the lowest paid, least trained in the company because except in one-store operations, the CEO rarely comes by to help sack groceries.

I got thinking about this last week thanks to a very insightful e-mail from an MNB reader about my last column. You may recall that I wrote about a distasteful announcement made on a United Airlines flight mocking the recent meltdown by a Jet Blue pilot. The reader asked if I was going to boycott United. Sadly, the answer is no - because I live in a market where United is the largest carrier by far and a boycott would only serve to make my life incredibly difficult.

Supermarkets should only be so lucky. Had the same experience occurred in one of my local stores a boycott could be possible. Sure, it might be difficult for countless reasons - from price to quality to convenience - but my choices would certainly allow me to express my anger far easier than I can at United.

Yet, as always, there’s more to this. An article Monday in the daily update from Advertising Age asked if we are ready for a world without menial jobs. As Ad Age pointed out the new era of commentary, blogging, reviewing and simple connectedness means no business interaction is unimportant. Every consumer is now able to complain or compliment with power and that means that every front-line employee is now truly on the front line.

That in turn puts new pressure on everyone behind the front line. It means that those customer-facing employees cannot be treated as disposable resources or cost centers as, sadly, many companies have done in the past. More than ever they need ample training to ensure that they are equipped as best as possible to handle what will come their way. More than ever they need the respect of the entire organization because customers never complain about the supply chain, the marketing staff, the site selectors or even the CEO because they don’t know those people and don’t really care how they affect the shopping experience. What they care about are the tomatoes that got crushed in their shopping bag or the clerk who sent them to aisle 11 for an item that wasn’t there.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
KC's View:
Two things...

One. It is interesting that Michael makes reference to how front line employees can make the difference in a hotel stay. I’ve gotten a bunch of emails over the past few weeks from readers suggesting that this is the reason that the Extended Stay hotel chain hired Jim Donald as CEO ... his reputation at companies ranging from Pathmark to Starbucks is as someone who puts a premium on the front line experience.

Two. The Ad Age story about the end of menial jobs - which really means that no job is inconsequential - is worth reading. You can check it out here.