When I was age five—and a year away from beginning first grade—I spent the mornings and afternoons with my maternal grandmother, who lived next door and had just retired from 30 years of teaching elementary school in our small North Carolina town of Marshville. One of my most vivid memories from that special time was our "bill-paying day" each month, when I would make the rounds with Mama in her old black Chevy as we visited the offices of the power company, the phone company, the gas company, and so on.

Sure, my grandmother could have dropped her payments in the mail, but she so enjoyed the friendly banter and the "Hello Miss Ada" greetings she received on these visits. (And, of course, I liked the Tootsie Rolls, Fire Balls and Mary Janes that called out to me from candy dishes in these offices!) Personal interaction was a critical dimension to my grandmother's customer experience.

Yes, she expected her gas drum to be refilled, her telephone to work, and her lights to burn at night. But what really kept her relationships fresh and rewarding with these businesses was the personal touch she received every month at the counters where she paid her bills. To my grandmother, these good folks were just "Carolyn" and "Irene" and "Jimmy." But today, we would dub them "brand ambassadors" for the way their actions extended and reinforced their organizations' intended value propositions.

The world has changed, and today the management requirements surrounding the reliable delivery of frontline "wow" are substantially more complex. Part of this complexity is rooted in the fact that companies must now manage a number of delivery channels, each with varying frontline requirements.

Whether serving customers face to face or via email, the Web, phone, fax, instant messaging, self-service, or some combination of them, a firm's reputation for world-class customer care is built one customer and one contact at a time. Frontline employees in operations, sales, service, or account management, etc., all play key roles in delivering this all-important contact.

Accordingly, a firm must continually evolve its internal operating systems and processes into structures that empower rather than impede the frontline's success with customers. This is a tall order. Yet, keeping an eye on a few key priorities will help you succeed. Regardless of the channels they serve, employees need at minimum three things to perform effectively on the frontline:

  1. A can-do, customer-first attitude
  2. Performance know-how
  3. Customer policies that turn buyers on, not off

1. A Can-Do, Customer-First Attitude

An effective brand ambassador needs a can-do, customer-first attitude—one that emotes an affection for people and a desire to do right by them. World-class companies discovered long ago that you hire for attitude and train for competency—not the other way around. Certain people are born with a natural passion and heart for serving customers and fellow team mates. And it shows.

In their memorable book Turned On, authors Roger Dow and Susan Cook tell the story of Albert "Smitty" Smith, who won Marriott Hotel's award for the best sports salesperson. When accepting his award, here's what he told the audience:

You've probably guessed that I'm not a salesperson like all of you. I don't have an office or a fancy title. But what I do have is a relationship with all the sports teams. When a team comes to town, I work 24 hours a day to take care of their every wish. I know what every player, every coach, and every manager likes as their special order. Sometimes they even call me before they get to town and request special snacks and treats.

Last year, a competing hotel offered rooms to teams for $4 less than we were charging. Half of the teams went to that hotel, including the Dodgers. But whenever a team that wasn't staying at the Marriott came to town, I took the day off. I'd call my friends at the other hotel to find out what time the team was scheduled to arrive. Then I'd go over in full uniform and wait for the team in the lobby of the other hotel. One time, the Dodgers came to town. Tommy Lasorda came in and saw me standing there. He shook my hand and said with a smile, "Smitty, what are you doing here? Are you with this hotel now? This is great. So are we." "No," I answered, "I'm still at the Marriott." "What are you doing here, then?" "Well, I just wanted to welcome you to town, wish you good luck against the Braves, and tell you that I'm bringing over your special order from the Marriott after the game tonight." Lasorda asked why I would do such a thing. I answered, "First of all, because this hotel's room service closes at 11:00 PM, and if the game goes into extra innings, you'll miss your late night snack." But more important, I added, "I just wanted you to know that even though you can't afford to stay with us anymore, we still love you."

Smitty had a natural affinity for serving customers. The attitude that compelled this behavior was not "trained" into Smitty. He brought it to the job. But Marriott had other important roles to play:

  1. Creating recruitment messaging for attracting Smitty-like job seekers

  2. Spotting these candidates in the recruitment pool and hiring them

  3. Then creating a work environment where their can-do, customer-first attitudes could blossom for the good of the customer, for themselves, and for the organization

2. Performance Know-How

Making frontline employees effective means arming them with the information they need to serve their customers well. No one understood this better than Mike Marino, who a number of years ago, as vice-president of customer development at Frito-Lay, was grappling with a problem plaguing many sales teams in geographically dispersed locations: How do you pool information resources to serve a national customer on a local level?

"There was knowledge trapped in files everywhere," said Marino; but with so many disparate databases, there was no way for his 15-member sales team to get it all. As a result, the sales team benefited very little from sharing best practices and other information. Field inefficiency spilled over into corporate double-work as well. For example, numerous salespeople would ask the corporate marketing staff for current private-label trends in their snack category. Support staff would supply the information again and again, performing the same task many times.

Besides such inefficiencies, the sales teams lacked a way to collaborate and brainstorm online. For example, if a sales team member in the Midwest received some research data and wanted feedback from account executives on the East and West Coast, the opportunity for online collaboration was not available.

The answer? Build a knowledge management portal on Frito-Lay's corporate intranet. Starting from scratch in populating the test portal, Marino and his team began an audit followed by expertise profiles to identify who's who at the Plano headquarters so that people with know-how in such areas as promotion planning, cost estimation, or new product announcement could be readily called upon for assistance. Why was this critical? Because in large organizations a wealth of knowledge exists; yet, with little or no support, someone new in the field can suffer many false starts trying to determine where and from whom to get the needed information.

Because the pilot team was working with confidential client information, security was a top concern. The portal was built so that different sections were password-protected. This allowed only the appropriate users to access confidential information. As Marino explained, the particular customer "had customer information about sales performance that they shared with members of the Frito-Lay team, but we were contracted not to let that information get outside the team that worked with that customer."

A year after the test portal went live, the sales results were telling. The test team doubled the growth rate of the customer's business in the salty snack category. But the benefits didn't stop there. Team members reported more camaraderie and relationship building with each other. From a homepage list of team member birthdays to an automatic message feature that informed team members who was online, the portal proved to be an invaluable tool for helping team members pull together on behalf of a customer. The employee retention rate improved as well. In previous company surveys, sales people complained about geographic constraints and how they didn't feel connected and part of a team. The portal helped improve those issues, as well.

The lesson is this: It's essential that employees who deal directly with customers have the necessary time, tools, and training to get the job done. As Frito-Lay discovered, harnessing various data silos across the organization and putting that information to work for the customer is key to maximizing frontline-ambassador performance.

3. Policies That Turn Customers on, Not off

Frontline brand ambassadors require customer-friendly policies. Even your most well-intended and talented frontliners will not create loyal customers if their efforts are sand-bagged with procedures and processes that make it hard for customers to buy. How do you ferret out problematic policies and procedures? Sure, you can track customer metrics, trend customer complaints, conduct lost customer studies, create customer experience maps, etc. All of these can help pinpoint problem areas. But nothing takes the place of talking directly with customers. And this vital customer listening begins in the C suite.

Two years ago, while presenting at the European Conference on Customer Management, I crossed paths with John Russell, managing Director of Harley-Davidson, Europe. John told me he never relied on surveys and customer research reports, alone, to keep abreast of what's important to customers. Instead, he advocated far more hands-on customer information gathering. "I ride with customers 10-15 days a year," he shared. "At our 100th anniversary celebration in Milwaukee, the job of every VP in the company was to hand out brochures for three days from a booth. I spoke to thousands of customers anonymously. The authority of a job title is a handicap to bosses who want to get at the truth of what's going on for the customer."

In my book, Customer Loyalty: How to Earn It, How to Keep It, I write about Feargal Quinn, founder of Superquinn, a 21-store supermarket chain in Ireland. Growing up in Ireland, Quinn spent school breaks working at his father's Red Island holiday camp. One big lesson for young Quinn was his father's rule of always charging guests at the beginning of their stay for their entire holiday. Explained Quinn, "It was set up so that no matter how hard we worked to give our guests a great experience, we wouldn't increase our profit from their stay. The only way we could judge our success was if the guest came up to my father and said, 'Mr. Quinn, I had a great holiday. I'm rebooking for next year.' Every single thing we did was centered on one overriding aim: to get people to come back."

And these habits continue. In his most recent book, The Ultimate Question, Fred Reichheld describes Quinn's monthly customer listening routine. By any standard, it's aggressive. Quinn drops in on each of his 21 Superquinn stores every month, walking the aisles and talking with customers about likes and dislikes. Two times each month he holds two-hour roundtable discussions with a dozen customers at a rotation of stores. Only Feargal's assistant (who helps take notes) is allowed to attend. To ensure customer candor, no store managers are allowed.

In studying loyalty-maker organizations for over two decades, I've seen time and again a common denominator in world-class companies: The senior executives make customer listening a routine part of their jobs. It's an important means by which senior management keeps the organization on track improving the customer experience and away from internal turf wars that often side-track important customer work.

* * *

The consistent delivery of frontline "wow" in today's 24/7 marketplace is an arduous management challenge. From recruiting, training, and retaining talented frontline ambassadors to keeping abreast of ever-evolving multichannel technologies, it's easy to drown in a sea of seemingly urgent to-do's. But keep a cool head and a clear eye on the abovementioned three time-tested frontliner priorities

It's what kept my dear grandmother returning each month for relationship boosters from her frontline ambassadors. And it's how you'll keep your customers returning.

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image of Jill Griffin

Jill Griffin is an executive trainer (jillgriffin.net) and author.