“We want to be number one for customer service.” We’ve heard this stated by a number of our clients over the years, particularly in the financial services industry. This makes sense: for many banks and insurance companies, poor customer service is the big gripe of customers, and therefore one of the biggest opportunities to have an impact.
Who is involved in delivering this customer service? In most cases, it’s the “front office” staff, in call centres and branches. How can we have an impact on the customer service they deliver? Help them to be effective, and provide them with great information resources that ensure they give the right answers to customers every time.
In the decade since we wrote Knowledge management for call centres, things have improved somewhat. There are a now a range of good knowledge management solutions specifically for frontline staff, although these have been adopted very patchily.
The needs of front office staff, however, still languish within most organisations. Frontline knowledge bases are often out of scope for corporate intranet projects, collaboration and social tools may not be deployed to frontline staff, and the role of front office knowledge doesn’t appear in corporate strategy documents.
In most large organisations, frontline staff are hidden within a business unit, within a business line, within a division; many levels away from corporate teams. This results in the classic “out of sight out mind”, whereby corporate goals relating to customer service may not reach the actual staff involved in delivering the customer service.
This leads to a very obvious statement:
To achieve a corporate goal of improving customer service, start by providing better knowledge and information to frontline staff.
We’ve done a lot of work in call centres over the years, and while they’re incredibly well run on the people side (staffing, rosters, queue management, training), they’re often very weak on knowledge management. (In far too many cases, the standard way of communicating key updates to frontline staff is to send them a barrage of emails, and then hope for the best.)
From a corporate perspective, it’s time to put the focus back on frontline knowledge. This means:
- Spend time with frontline staff. We’ve often said “you can’t design solutions for staff you haven’t personally met”, and this is particularly true in unique environments such as call centres. (The article Conducting intranet needs analysis outlines a range of practical and cost-effective research techniques.)
- Improve frontline knowledge tools. While some call centres already have great tools for capturing their information, many do not. This should be addressed as a matter of urgency.
- Align frontline and corporate information. While front office staff often have distinct and intensive needs, frontline information should be aligned with overall resources, such as the corporate intranet.
- Ensure frontline knowledge meets customer needs. Align internal knowledge resources with information on the public-facing website, and ensure frontline content helps staff to quickly answer customer questions.
- Include the front office in social and collaborative projects. There are many case studies to now show that helping frontline staff to connect and share with each other will produce substantial benefits.
- Allocate resources to manage key knowledge. Too often, frontline information is maintained as a “hobby”, tacked onto the side of existing job roles. This information is perhaps the most important in the whole organisation, and ongoing permanent roles must be allocated, ensuring these staff have strong content and knowledge skills.
- Improve communication channels to frontline staff. Email delivery of key updates to frontline staff must stop, replaced with better coordinated and more effective communication channels.
- Harness the insights of frontline staff. As the staff with the most direct interactions with customers, frontline areas should be seen as a source of insight, not just a destination for top-down corporate information.
- Include the front office in corporate strategy. To achieve corporate goals relating to customer service, frontline needs and solutions must be elevated to form part of overall corporate strategies.
While front office staff will always be the direct responsibility of their business units, corporate customer service goals will only be met if frontline staff are able to do a great job. Corporate strategies and projects should therefore include a focus on the front office, recognising that even small improvements can have a big impact.