Do Your Frontlines Own the Customer Experience?

by Emily Capito LCSW, MBA

via Getty Images

If the complaints in your organization tend to burn up the ladder until you finally take the initiative to resolve the problem, you’re not alone. In fact, upset customers are communicating directly to the C-Suite these days, bypassing the ladder altogether.
Once relegated to the limits of family and friends, a bad experience can now circle the globe in a matter of minutes, thanks to social media. In the Economist Intelligence Unit report, Getting Closer to the Customer, Frank Eliason, senior vice president of social media for Citi, puts it bluntly, “Consumers now own the brand.”  It’s become imperative for leaders to nurture customer loyalty.

The C-Suite is fairly removed from the day-to-day customer interactions. Yet, many of us have a tendency to own the process. The very idea that a busy executive — removed from the customer experience by three to five layers of management — has the time to resolve every hiccup or even has the best idea of what will work is absurd.

How do we change the culture to instill ownership of the customer’s happiness with the ability to make a real impact in real time?

  1. Absolutely, unequivocally, stop solving problems yourself. If you continuously attempt to put out fires on your own, they will only climb the ladder. No customer wants to wait on hold for a supervisor to get an intelligent response. If that supervisor then “runs it up the flagpole” to get your expert response, the battle for that customer’s loyalty is already lost, and the reputation hit has probably already taken place.
  2. Ask, “What do you think we should do?” Affirm the customer’s solution, even if you would do it a little differently. If they’re completely off-base, use questions to help them understand, and repeat your own thought process. While this may begin with your direct reports, you will role model your desired problem-solving culture with every complaint that reaches your desk.
  3. Collaborate on neutralizing root problems. When you run up against a critical problem that requires executive oversight, or one that simply won’t go away, get representatives from the entire system in the room to co-create the solution. A key component of agile management is the connected, collaborative executive is replacing the top-down authoritarian because they get better, faster results.
  4. Elevate your frontline staff from mindless zombies to intelligent life. Tim Ferris shrewdly observed, “It’s amazing how someone’s IQ seems to double as soon as you give them responsibility and indicate that you trust them.” Identify predetermined options for common scenarios, and then add in flexibility to make a judgment call. Not only will this approach preserve your much-needed time for higher-level activities, it will create a more fulfilling experience for both your staff and your customers.
  5. Empower every employee to be a customer medic. Stop making your associates ask for permission to process a partial refund when a shipment is delayed, or offer a service upgrade for a client who was treated poorly. Customer satisfaction drives profitability by fostering loyalty and referrals, as emphasized in the service-profit chain model. The faster your company can make things right for the customer, the more likely they will sing your praises — or at least stick around to see how things go before they grumble aloud on Facebook.
  6. Reinforce ownership and adaptation. Trust has to be genuine. If your associates live in fear of making the wrong decision because Joe on the graveyard shift was fired, they will be less than inclined to go out on a limb for your customers. When an unexpected scenario results in a less-than-ideal decision, thank the team member for focusing on the customer ,and then provide better options for the future.

Empower every employee in your organization to own the customer experience, and you won’t be donning your firefighting gear each Monday. Rather, happy customers will barely remember the spark that was quickly extinguished by the increasingly responsive owners on your frontlines.


Emily CapitoEmily Capito is a capacity-building consultant working with young organizations to scale growth and successfully transition from startup to self-sustaining. Formerly the COO of a large nonprofit where she consistently pushed the limits to establish the organization as an industry innovator, Emily catalyzes transformational growth. You can find free resources here: emilycapito.com and her blog here:blog.impactignition.com.
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