Tethr Blog
Matt Dixon

Do you believe in frontline empowerment? Or do you just say that you do?

In the first post in this series, I argued that the explanation for why one company’s customer centricity efforts succeed while others fail is ultimately a function of whether the company itself is more focused on “telling” or more focused on “listening.”

A “telling” organization is one that leads with its own assumptions about what’s best for customers, whereas a “listening” organization is one that leads with an open mind, looking for insights and open to the idea that their assumptions—no matter how well-intended—may actually be wrong.

But how can you tell if your organization is more focused on telling or listening? The line between the two can be hard to define… but like many things, you know it when you see it.

The first and most powerful marker of a listening enterprise is how a company treats its frontline employees—and namely, the level of empowerment they give to the frontline.

Of course, like “customer-centricity,” the idea of “frontline empowerment” has become an over-used and fairly meaningless concept in the CX and customer service world. Most companies I talk to illustrate their commitment to frontline empowerment by pointing out how they allow their reps latitude in offering refunds and making policy exceptions or by regularly soliciting feedback from reps about things that could improve the customer experience.

But when you get down to it, this is just “empowerment window dressing” designed to make leaders feel good, or worse, to throw reps off the scent and make them feel their judgment is valued and their opinions matter. At the end of the day though, the company still believes it knows what’s best for customers and wants the frontline to adhere to the policies, processes and scripting it has prescribed.

A great example of a company that gets empowerment right—and a perfect illustration of the difference between real empowerment and fake empowerment—is T-Mobile.

Today, we’ve released a new Harvard Business Review article entitled “Reinventing Customer Service” that documents T-Mobile’s customer service transformation and the impressive results they’ve seen as they’ve shifted away from the traditional “factory floor” model for managing customer service (where reps are required to “stick to the script” and are told what to say and do), toward a new, team-based model that is built on frontline issue ownership, collaboration, and yes, empowerment.

Without stealing too much thunder from the article, what T-Mobile teaches us is that it’s easy to say we care about frontline agent empowerment, but it’s something else entirely to actually put the customer experience into the hands of the front line.

A listening enterprise, like T-Mobile, gives control to the front line because it knows that leadership doesn’t have all the answers and that the people who engage with customers day in and day out might be better positioned to decide what’s in the customer’s best interests and what’s going to create a great experience for them.

At Tethr, we sell a product that, almost by definition, forces companies to tell us whether they’re more focused on telling or listening. Telling companies are most interested in using technologies like ours to monitor their front line—to make sure they’re sticking to the script, saying and doing the things the company has decided are important to deliver a great customer experience (e.g., saying the customer’s name three times, thanking the customer for her loyalty, etc.). The sharpest manifestation of this is when companies ask if they can use this technology to “screen pop” their reps, force-feeding them scripting suggestions in real time during the course of a customer conversation.

Listening organizations don’t ask for these sorts of things. In fact, they take steps to avoid the temptation of telling, which they fear will inadvertently over-ride agent empowerment and judgment.

One particular company we work with in the consumer electronics space is a great example of a listening enterprise and one that really gets what it means to empower the front line. Unlike most companies who deploy voice analytics, this company actively hides the names of their individual reps from their analytics dashboard precisely because they don’t want managers using it as a tool for driving script adherence.

Rather than using the technology to monitor what reps are saying, they use it to focus on listening to what customers are saying. To quote their head of customer service, “We know we hire great people. We trust them to use their best judgment in terms of how to interact with our customers and handle their issues. The last thing we’re going to do is signal that we don’t trust them by using a voice analytics tool to monitor their every word and action. What we really want to know is what our customers are saying about our products and solutions. What’s causing them frustration, driving dissatisfaction and leading to churn that we can address as a company, improving not just the customer experience, but the experience of our frontline reps as well.”

So, if you’re looking for clear markers of a listening enterprise, pay attention to how a company treats its frontline employees. Specifically, examine the extent to which they empower their reps and let them use their own judgment.

In the next post, we’ll share some of the other markers you should be looking for.

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