The Frontline Experience Gap – Competence, Supervision, and Data

by Scott Gilbey

 “I help identify customer and employee experience gaps that adversely impact the frontline. Then we create opportunities by fixing those gaps. Experience improves and so does P&L.

The frontline experience gap has three dimensions—Competence, Supervision, and Data and here I am at the frontline with the following scenarios for you to consider.

  • A Service Desk Associate is assigned to a checkout register for the first time. The Associate does not have login credentials and calls a supervisor for help. Customers wait.
  • It’s 8:13 p.m. on a Friday. A customer has purchased $4,500 of lumber and doors, three carts full and all is paid for. The customer then waits 40 minutes because only one employee in the store has a key to open the loading door to allow the customer to exit.
  • An airline Gate Agent is asked by a passenger to check-in for a same-day, earlier flight. The Gate Agent has never performed this task before and does not know how to do it.
  • A new frontline employee watches 50 hours of training video, then asks the Supervisor to review the startup checklist and is told, “That is not a good use of my time.”

The above events are real. The employee, associate/agent, is me. I’ve had several people tell me these are small things, and that leaders should only worry about the “big picture.” All I can say is that small things accumulate. Four isolated events quickly become 400, then 4,000, and then the brand takes shape.

The Experience Gap is Alive and Kicking

The experience gap (delivery gap, Bain & Company, 2005) is well known: 80% of CEOs say they deliver great experiences, whereas only 8% of customers agree. Similar findings have been published over the years. Why is this gap so pervasive, and so persistent? I don’t have “the” answer. I certainly have “an” answer. It’s at the frontline. The companies in which I’ve worked at the frontline are all successful, respected brands, and profitable leaders in their markets. They are all wonderful places to work. And yet the experience gap is on full display across three dimensions: competence, supervision, and data.

The Competence Gap

My initial days at the frontline were spent watching LMS (learning management system) videos, reading PDF attachments, and clicking through hundreds of multiple-choice quizzes. After completing the requisite number of LMS modules, I’m out on the floor in contact with customers for the first time. The first retail customer with whom I interact approaches the checkout register. I know I’m supposed to scan the product and tap buttons on the keyboard, but I have never done it before. Sure enough, it doesn’t work the way I had expected. I lean over to ask a peer and wait for help to arrive.

This sort of thing happens repeatedly every day, for weeks on end, until I eventually cycle through the variety of regular tasks expected of me – check out, check-in, place an order, process curbside pickup, check for in-stock inventory, find a lost piece of luggage, etc.

As a frontline worker, I want to be competent, and I want to be perceived to be competent. I want to know the tasks I need to perform each day. I want to be good at those tasks. Otherwise, my interactions with customers can be ad hoc and awkward; frustrating for the customer and embarrassing for me. The basic problem is the complete lack of practice. Success in training is measured by participation, not by a real increase in skills. We learn on the fly, in the stressful moment of need, while the puzzled customer waits, and wonders.

The Supervision Gap

Slowly, my days on the frontline become weeks. And slowly I realize that while all my supervisors are good people, few of them are good supervisors. When I ask, “How does the checkout register work?”, my supervisor reaches over to me to bang out the keystrokes, or they tell me to ask someone else who “has time” to show me. They might add publicly, “I am disappointed in you for not knowing.” As my on-the-job learning continues, I learn to avoid disturbing my supervisor with too many questions and to limit those few questions to things that require permission. When I need help, I ask my peers. It is my peers who have, and are willing to share, the skills I need.

What then is the role of supervision? The company has designed this layer of its organization to focus on compliance and obedience. They print and post lists of LMS offenders and they send emails notifying them of time clock infractions. Building specific, task-level competence is not on their radar. To be fair, Supervisors are busy with their own work. They themselves are constantly judged and pitted against each other in a gigantic grid of KPIs, ratings, and rankings. Supervisors are under a lot of pressure, and that stuff rolls downhill. Speaking of KPIs, let’s turn to the third experience gap dimension – Data.

The Data Gap

I am a frontline worker, paid by the hour. I am also a long-time executive and a certified Customer Experience professional. I have an unusually robust understanding of data in a business setting. My frontline colleagues and I are awash with data. Everywhere we look on paper, online, coming out of my supervisor’s mouth, there is data. A lot of it is junk. Most of it is a huge distraction from the job I am currently trying to do. While I am drowning in data, I am short on the information I need right now, such as “How many concrete blocks can I sell to this customer who is standing in front of me and needs to build a house?”

ME: How many concrete blocks can I sell to this customer?

SUPERVISOR: Has the customer enrolled in our loyalty program?

ME: What?

SUPERVISOR: Does the customer have a store-branded credit card?

ME: Why does that matter right now?

SUPERVISOR: Last week we had only 23 new credit cards, we need more this week.

And so, it goes! Data that matters to Supervision at the frontline often has little or nothing to do with what the employee needs. In the concrete block example, the Supervisor had shortly before attended the weekly store manager meeting, and the small number of credit applications was high on the agenda, and therefore top of mind. Here is another example of inventory data impacting the frontline employee:

  • A customer wanted a certain model of BBQ grill. IMS (inventory management system) said we had two. So, I sold one.
  • A day later, the BBQ grill was not delivered because, in fact, we had zero available.
  • Another store location showed 12 available. I placed a second order, while at the same time calling my peer (not the supervisor) at the other store to make a visual check. It turned out there were only 7 or 8 available because some of those 12 had been sold but had not yet been taken out of inventory. My peer gave me this information verbally over the phone, then cautioned me to also double-check with the BBQ Supervisor.
  • The numbers worked out; the customer was happy. And still, Store Management at both locations was abuzz for two days because “that guy” (me) broke protocol and placed the order before the grill Supervisor did a personal visual check, and before that Supervisor gave me a personal and verbal ok over the phone.
  • I had covered my bases with the actual inventory number. I had not closed the loop with the inventory politics.

Because this blog is about CX, let’s address NPS (Net Promoter Score) and LTR (Likelihood to Recommend) at the frontline, as it relates to data.

SUPERVISOR: Scott, we need more surveys.

ME: How many more do we need?

SUPERVISOR: It doesn’t matter. Just get more.

ME: Well, I am interested to know how many surveys we got last week, and how many we need this week. Is there any way we can find out? Wouldn’t you like to know too?

SUPERVISOR: Scott, you don’t understand. When we get one bad survey, we must get eight good surveys. This number [pointing to the monitor] must be 100. Now it is only 80. It must be 100. We got one bad survey last week, now we need eight good surveys to make it 100 because my department looks bad when senior management looks at our scores.

ME: OK, I get the math. So, you say we need eight more surveys this week. Are you curious about how many surveys we got last week?

SUPERVISOR: No, it doesn’t matter.

ME: And what are customers saying? What do they like? What do they not like?

SUPERVISOR: You don’t understand. Just do what I am asking. Get more surveys.

This is the reality at the frontline.

Data is like water. A certain amount, and cleanness, is necessary for survival. Too much can overwhelm you. If it is dirty, it can harm you. A company lives in a sea of data. At the frontline, we need only a cupful at a time. It would be genuinely nice for it to be served as needed, but very often we have no option but to fetch it ourselves. And we often find ourselves testing the quality ourselves before using it.

In retail, I learn to never, ever, trust the IMS at face value. If I don’t walk the store and get eyes on it before committing it to a customer, I may pay a price later when it does not arrive as promised. The two examples above – concrete block and BBQ grill – are typical, and representative of huge opportunity for time and money savings.

In all my retail immersions so far, the following data are among the most essential:

  • number of credit applications.
  • number of new reward-related memberships.
  • number of overtime minutes and/or punch-clock errors.
  • number of 10/10 or 5/5 satisfaction surveys returned.
  • KPI ranking of this location compared to others.

Companies spend millions on data systems and digitalization, based on boardroom priorities. If my former SVP self were here now, I would ask my current Frontline self what data I need right now to better serve the customer who is staring at me in disbelief. Winning companies have data strategies and governance models, with the customer at the center and the employee at the bullseye.

Now What?

What is your company doing to make your frontline employees competent? If LMS is your primary training delivery mechanism, you are measuring the speed of onboarding and rate of module completion. I urge you to flip that switch and shed light on actual learning of critical tasks. Here is another switch to flip. Imagine if your supervision layer were to drop 50% of its KPIs and use the freed-up time and energy on one thing, and one thing only. That is ensuring the Frontline people have what they need. Ask them. They’ll tell you. And of course, there is data, an ocean of data. Technology alone will not save you. When I first studied master data years ago, I learned that reference data is a good place to start. Now I would refine that to reference data that is used at the frontline. Get some help. It’s brutal out here yet I love it!

Click HERE to learn more about HorizonCX:

Karl Sharicz – Founder, CEO – HorizonCX | October 2023

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