Is Your Front Office Driving Customers Away?

If so, it's probably not just a front office problem. As CEO, you can reinforce a three-step approach to ensure your front line is keeping customers happy.

Last week, I called a doctor’s office to schedule an appointment. She’s a specialist and highly recommended, which is why I had first seen her several years ago. I called for a specific reason, rather than a routine check. It didn’t matter. It required two transfers and intervals on hold before someone talked to me. This person never asked why I wanted an appointment. Instead, she immediately made it clear that I was an inconvenience. I hadn’t seen the specialist in a while and thus, my records were “on the old system” which was inaccessible to staff – indefinitely. Further, they only scheduled patients who were “serious about seeing the doctor.” I told her not to worry; I would be leaving the practice.

Meanwhile, the help desk of another service provider wrote “my hands are tied” in response to my inquiry about how we might resolve an issue.

How many times have you been kept waiting—either on the phone or in the office—or threatened with charges for being late? Certainly, I have never been offered a reciprocal refund or discount when the provider/business kept me waiting.

Unfortunately, these scenarios are familiar to many of us—with a doctor, your internet or phone provider, a retailer, etc. Experts regularly talk about the importance of customer experience and its business impact. They offer myriad remedies. For me, it boils down to this:

Customers want to be heard, and feel that their time is respected.

When businesses fail to do this, the front office drives away customers. Successful front office staff routinely do these three things:

  1. Listen first.

2. Understand the problem or question.

3. Offer an alternative.

In a different situation, Sperry’s front office folks did all three things. The representative helping me listened. She then understood both what I was trying to do and why it was important for me. She could not change the answer; policies and systems would not allow it. Instead, she offered an alternative. It was not a perfect solution, yet it she could do it immediately. I left the conversation feeling heard and satisfied with the outcome.

Not every problem or question can be addressed by the front office, or anyone. Nevertheless, customers who feel heard and respected are more likely to accept the answer. This doesn’t mean they like the outcome or response. Feeling heard and that their problem is understood validates their experience. Offering an alternative (if possible) demonstrates an interest in meeting the customer’s needs—helping them to find a work-around, a different item or another solution to address their question.

Like customers, employees want to feel heard, and their time to be respected.

CEOs can reinforce this three-step approach—listen, understand, offer alternative—in their interactions with staff and executives. They embed these behaviors into the organization by challenging executives to work similarly with their teams. As Jeff Koyen wrote recently for Forbes: “When your employees feel the love, so will your customers—and it all starts with a great experience at work.” Staff who feel heard and respected are more likely to treat each other and customers in the same way. This is good business.

Your front office is only part of the equation. Most people want to do a good job. And those in customer-facing roles typically want to serve customers well. Still, they get their marching orders from the “top”. What they see and experience as employees informs their approach to customers. Further, their systems, job-aids, and manuals must be designed to help them put the three principles into practice real time. Remember: a front office failure is rarely just a front office problem.

CEOs take this customer-centric behavior a step further by specifically tasking executives to view processes, policies and practices through this lens. They look beyond the front office and regularly set time to address two questions:

• In what ways are we driving customers (or staff) away?

• Which of our processes, policies, or practices get in the way of our ability to hear and respect our customers and staff?

My experience suggests Sperry embraces this kind of thinking. Its leaders have empowered front office staff to act decisively and in the moment. I didn’t get exactly what I wanted. Yet because I was both heard and respected, I did remain a loyal customer. Conversely, the medical practice lost a patient (customer) and created an excellent example of what not to do. Which experience would you want your customers to share?

Tara Rethore, CEO of Strategy for Real, works with CEOs, boards and executives to take strategy off the page and into action. Throughout her career, Tara has led strategy development and execution within large global organizations and as a highly valued consultant. Currently, Tara serves on several private and nonprofit boards. She is also one of Chief Executive Group’s CEO Trusted Advisers and a Marshall Goldsmith Certified Stakeholder-Centered Coach. Find more insights on Tara’s Real Strategy blog.