Scripts, processes, technology and playbooks contribute valuable direction to frontline employees, but not every customer situation can be preconceived. When the unexpected pops up, the team’s mission will make it easier to do the right thing.

Paramedics with alarmed faces rush in. “Can’t stop the bleeding,” one cries as nurses quickly circle the comatose patient on the gurney. The young surgeon pushes through to remove the cloth tourniquet from the victim’s thigh. Blood spurts wildly. “He’s bleeding out,” barks a nurse as she applies pressure. The surgeon deliberates for just a moment before calling for a catheter and within seconds he has the life-saving device in hand.

It's rare that the frontline of any commercial enterprise calls for such a life-and-death response as this scene from one of my favorite shows, "The Good Doctor." But each situation has one thing in common. When interacting with a customer or a patient you never know what’s going to happen next. All frontlines are what the US Army War College called VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous). Quality customer experience depends in part on a fitting response to whatever happens to come up and few companies do it well. A study conducted by Accenture and Adweek discovered that while 80% of companies think they deliver a superior customer experience, only an astonishingly low 8% of customers agree.

Marketing Joins the Frontline of Customer Experience

Companies have long acknowledged that sales and service people are essential frontline employees. Now, many marketers and some technology specialists have joined the frontline because so many customer interactions are now digital.

Marketing programs are often the gateway to other company interactions, creating a valence — good or poor — for other customer experiences. Whether in person or through digital services, everyone who works the frontline must be ready to respond to the unexpected at a moment’s notice.

Related Article: 8 Tips to Build a Winning Customer Experience Strategy

A Shared Customer-Centric Mission Is Essential to Frontline Success

While many things are necessary to make frontline responsiveness effective, one thing must be true. Everyone on the frontline must share a common mission, an ultimate purpose. This mission must be customer-centric. Companies can set internal goals (e.g., pipeline targets, revenue growth, team productivity), but these cannot be the primary mission.

In the emergency room, for example, the shared mission is the health and safety of the patient. Imagine if the technician providing the catheter in the "Good Doctor" scene believed her mission was to save money on equipment or if the surgeon thought his mission was to complete the procedure quickly so he could fill his quota? What would have happened to the patient’s experience if those varying goals came into conflict or if they slowed response? Internal goals, especially financial, can be important markers of progress, and businesses must be financially sensible.

However, these internal goals should be beholden to the customer value mission, not the other way around. Surrogation is the term for when people become so focused on achieving a metric, they lose track of the bigger picture.

Dan Cockerell, former VP of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World says, “We’ve learned at Disney that making money is simply a lagging indicator of all the inputs upstream.”

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: Are You Sacrificing Customer Experience for Marketing Leads?

Customer Experience Mission Guides When Nothing Else Can

Each frontline employee makes dozens of day-to-day decisions that influence customer experience. A mission-less frontline is a real risk to the strategy and significant contributor to the fear that empowering employees will cause chaos. Many types of guardrails exist to steer employee action including training, scripts, checklists, rules, processes, technology and playbooks. These provide valuable assistance, but at the dynamic edge, where every customer can have a bespoke need, and every situation is at least slightly different, action requires creative problem solving that can’t always be preconceived.

The mission is determined by company leadership and is an essential strategy component. It provides boundaries and steers the direction of decisions when quick action is demanded, and there is no time to go up and down the management hierarchy. Like it or not, in VUCA situations the frontline has the power. If the team’s North Star is clear, a mission will keep the team on track. Without a mission, there’s no telling what direction an employee might head when things get ambiguous.

Of course, it’s imperative that employees understand the mission and are both empowered and supported to deliver it. Health solution provider CVS has an admirable mission. “We help people with their health wherever and whenever they need us. And we do it with heart. Because our passion is our purpose: Bringing our heart to every moment of your health™.” CVS mission is clear, customer centric, concise and inspiring. However, having that mission on their website didn’t prevent employees at one store from withholding a COVID vaccine from a vulnerable elderly customer for the simple reason that he wasn’t computer literate and unable to sign up online for a vaccine appointment.

A Mission Also Serves the People on the Customer Experience Frontline

People want to work for companies whose purpose is intellectually and emotionally aligned with them. A recent EY Beacon Institute survey of business leaders reported that companies that embody purpose have employees that are 1.4 times more engaged, 1.7 times more satisfied and are three times more likely to retain employees.

Maintaining a quality frontline workforce is a strong asset in today’s competitive human capital market. It’s the frontline employees who will be the first to hear customer concerns and will notice what delights them before trackable data pattern can be observed in the company systems.

Anne M. Mulcahy, former Chairperson and CEO of Xerox Corporation said, “Employees are a company's greatest asset — they're your competitive advantage. You want to attract and retain the best; provide them with encouragement, stimulus, and make them feel that they are an integral part of the company's mission.”

Your company mission is your promise to your customer and will keep your team focused on what is most important regardless of what unexpected event shows on the frontline.

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