Putting the Customer Second

Arming frontline employees with technology can pay more dividends than enabling customers.

Last year, I had the privilege of editing a book called "Fresh Customer Service" by Michael D. Brown, a motivational speaker and career coach with extensive experience as a frontline retail employee and executive. Brown bases his customer service theory on the radical notion that by putting the customer second and the frontline employee first, you will likely create a frontline environment that is more comfortable and convenient for customers and employees alike.

"Fresh Customer Service" is not a technology book per se and deals mostly with how to manage frontline employees in a way that lets them know they are respected, valued and taken seriously. But its theories and strategies can easily be applied to how you implement technologies that aid and enable frontline customer service.

When applying technology to frontline customer service, most retailers have at least one of two basic goals in mind: allowing customers to shop with minimal employee interaction, and reducing employee headcount as much as possible. After all, who needs a store associate to answer questions about product specs when that information can easily be provided via an interactive kiosk?

While this approach to frontline customer service and technology may make sense in terms of reducing budget allocations for employee recruitment, training, salary and benefits, it does not necessarily help the customer. As much as customers may complain about ill-informed store associates with poor attitudes, for the most part they are not looking to replace human interaction with computer interaction. Customers are looking to interact with knowledgeable humans who are ready and willing to provide assistance.

Many retailers follow a misguided notion that replacing live employees with kiosks, mobile devices and self-checkout terminals is "putting the customer first." But what about the customer who is not computer-literate (even in 2008, many of them are out there and probably shopping at your stores) or does not feel like pushing a bunch of buttons? What happens when inevitable computer glitches and failures occur, or a customer has a multi-layered inquiry that an automated system simply cannot adequately handle?