a lit up retail store at night, photographed from outside
PHOTO: Jorge Ramírez

Frontline employees in brick-and-mortar stores, financial institutions, hospitality venues and other businesses act as the public face of their companies. 

But too often these workers don't receive the back-office support they need, which prevents them from providing the experiences today’s customers expect — from knowing if products not on the shelf are available in the back of the store, or when they might be available from the warehouse, to understanding a customer’s history with the business so they can waive late fees or similar charges for valued customers.

How are businesses successfully closing this gap?

Workers Get Creative When Solutions Aren't Provided

“There is a huge chasm in retail with respect to using mobile devices and other non-tethered devices. The more tech-focused companies, such as Apple, are light years ahead of your local chain clothing or shoe outlet," said Carrie Basham Marshall, principle and CEO at Talk Social to Me. “At an Apple store, for example, shop floor employees each carry devices that can order inventory from the back room and process payment in a 1x1 customer interaction. In many retail organizations, however, access to information and inventory is dependent upon a centralized computer or workstation at the cash wrap or the back office. We've heard many retail managers share that employees using devices on the floor would be seen as 'a waste of time.'"

Marshall said the result often is some employees hack their own workarounds. Some locations create their own WhatsApp groups to communicate about shift swapping and get help to support a customer covertly. Others use freemium versions of tools like HotSchedules or Slack to simply create some basic form of connectivity —authorized or not. On demand, device-based connectivity for frontline employees is a huge need, but one that most companies are not truly prepared to support. Until they find a solution, employees will continue to build what works for them outside of the purview of IT, HR and communications, according to Marshall.

Related Article: Frontline Workers: The Untapped Knowledge Workers in Your Midst

Financial Services Needs Holistic View

“Until we have completely automated branches, our bank tellers will continue to play a critical role in CX,” said Eric Pointer, president and CEO of Credit Union of Texas (CUTX). “Over the last few months CUTX has been focused on providing a 360-degree view of the member throughout the organization. Once completed, CUTX employees will be able to know which products a member was interested in based on online and transactional behavior.”

So front-end teller systems connect the front-end staff to historical data as we’ll as to member (credit union terminology for customers, since they are shareholders) and non-members are doing on our website to the teller in real-time. We now provide end-to-end transparency about where members are throughout the CX journey, like account opening, loan processes, statuses, comments and much more.

“To provide this transparency we have done multiple integrations so that our tellers go to one system with a unified view of our member/non-member where they can see everything they need … no more calling or emailing other departments and instant gratification for our members,” Pointer added.

Related Article: How Financial Services Compete on Customer Experience

Part of a Bigger Picture

Frontline workers don’t want to feel like they are on their own, said Jason Harris, chief strategist for High Flight Solutions. This is true whether the employee is full-time or part-time, he added.

“Many frontline workers desire to be connected to back end operations, to have a better understanding of what it takes to make the operation run, or see and understand ‘how the sausage is made,’ so to speak,” Harris said. “Companies can capitalize on this desire to afford the frontline staff to appease their curiosity, which can lead to deeper commitment to the organization and the team.”

This commitment can be leveraged to create opportunities to support cross-functional teams, cultivating more understanding, trust, collaboration and commitment to the organization. When combined, these elements help support team members, cross functionally, and provides new levels of commitment to the team members, back end operations and the organization as a whole.

“I think the best way to connect the two is by way of intentional interaction coupled with useful and meaningful interactions in both directions,” Harris said.  “When members understand the why and certain details behind what is happening, from back end operations to front line engagement, the whole organization benefits.”

Related Article: Frontline Workers Still Point the Way Forward for the Digital Workplace

Two-Way Communications

The front and back end need two-way communications. By connecting frontline personnel with backoffice systems, the customer-facing employee can provide the personalized service the customer expects while having the necessary information to provide excellent CX, said Cameron Smith, vice president of product management for Genesys.

“The most common way to connect the front office to the back office is CRM integrations, which feed front office information into back office systems — typically in real-time,” Smith said. “Mature extensions of this bring back office tasks into the omnichannel customer experience platform domain so that the customer can be routed and managed from a central location.”

Visibility Is Key

"The challenge for the frontline workforce is visibility. Workers in these positions keep the business running, but the view from the top of the company often perceives this work as part of a well-oiled machine,” said AJ Brustein, co-founder and COO of Wonolo. "The first step in bettering the lines of communication between senior business leaders and the frontline workforce is to increase visibility and understanding — when was the last time your senior leaders visited the warehouse or did a delivery ride-a-long to connect with your frontline teammates? Wonolo, for example, requires all full-time employees at our company to conduct a gig on the platform to understand what frontline workers face and find ways to better our business from the get-go.”

The second step is building a community — one that doesn't establish the separation between groups but blurs the lines so employees from all levels are able to connect and unite on the common mission to support the company. That might look like teambuilding events, happy hours or off-sites that encourage mixing between lines of business. This can even be implemented in seating arrangements — everyone sits with everyone in the office rather than separating desk areas by job function.

Celebrating little wins can make a big difference, Brustein added. “Our company hosts daily stand-ups across all of our offices, and there are ample opportunities to highlight teammates who have gone above and beyond but might not have a high-visibility job like sales. Opening opportunities like this up to employees of all levels and job descriptions helps unite the team in a common goal — a rising tide lifts all ships, after all."