Scenes From The Frontlines

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A post Christmas story that is worthy of your attention…

I was in the market for luggage. Not the usual business travel, but a luggage set for the family. We decided that we were looking to invest to get something of quality. I went over to the store the day after Boxing Day to see if there was anything left and/or anything on special. I found what I was looking for (sort of). It was a little pricier than what I was looking to buy, but it seemed worth it. Here is a paraphrase of the conversation that took place…

  • Me: Is this on special?
  • Sales Rep: No.
  • Me: Do you have any Boxing Day specials happening?
  • Sales Rep: Boxing Day was yesterday.
  • Me: Did you have any sales?
  • Sales Rep: Everything in the store was 20% off.
  • Me: Is there any chance I can buy this bag with that same offer?
  • Sales Rep: No.
  • Me: What if I wanted to buy two bags, could you do something for me?
  • Sales Rep: I can’t make that decision, you would have to speak to the owner.
  • Me: OK, can I please speak to the owner?
  • Sales Rep: No. The owner is on vacation and even the manager won’t have the authority to make that decision. Plus, even if you did speak to the owner, he would still say, "no."
  • Me: OK… let me think about it
  • [exit stage left].

This isn’t about me being cheap.

I like a great deal as much as the next person. The thing is that this business has a Facebook page, they’re on Twitter and they’re constantly putting up videos on YouTube. On the surface, it appears like they care… really, really care about travel and their consumers. I’m not frustrated that I walked out of this store without the luggage or a deal. I am frustrated because the interaction with the employee was not helpful. There was no effort to show me a similar product that may have been cheaper or even a thinly veiled attempt to speak to a manager (the sale might have happened had they come back and said something like, "while I can’t make you the same offer as we had on Boxing Day, we’re willing to save you on the taxes," or something). In fact, the sales rep simply didn’t care one way or the other.

Our efforts fail when the frontline fails.

I can only imagine the time, energy and money that this business has put into their Digital Marketing and Social Media efforts. This doesn’t include the traditional advertising and PR efforts and then – in the end – when a potential customer makes it through all of the clutter, noise and competition and walks into the door, they’re faced with this type of sour puss. That’s not the brand. That’s not the desired outcome of the efforts that they’re making in marketing. It’s a lesson that speaks to the fragility of marketing as it moves through the brand ecosystem.

This happens all of the time. This happens everywhere.

My story is not unique. Just look at the customer service diatribes you can see on Twitter, Facebook, Yelp and beyond. In more cases than not, it’s the human factor that is causing the most friction. From passive/aggressive responses to mis-informed/uneducated reps to those that are downright rude to customers (mostly because they’re simply not all that thrilled with their own lots in life). Those people on the frontlines aren’t your last line of brand defense… they’re the first. If they don’t buy into the brand (and everything that it’s doing to get customers into the door), everything else is lost. We can talk about community managers and a better Facebook or Twitter presence as much as we want, but when the cash is in hand and the people who interact with the consumer don’t align with everything else, you may as well go back to having minimum wage employees prowl the streets wearing sandwichboards.

The frontlines shouldn’t be this ugly… they should look a lot more like the promised land. 


  1. LOL this reminds me of cashiers at Dunkin Donuts and comparable food retailers who tell you the cost of your purchase is $1.05 and you ask if $1 is OK and they say no, preferring you give $2 and get 95 cents in change.

  2. Right, because after they do that 50 times a day their boss isn’t going to make them make up the shortfall in the cash. Let’s rephrase the question from the cashier’s viewpoint, shall we? “Hey, even though I’m a professional who probably makes five times what you earn, would you mind giving me a discount — out of your pocket, if course?”
    Now I know you always make up for this by leaving the change behind when it’s less than 25 cents (a five times multiplier based on my guess at income), but the individual in question doesn’t know that, and besides it makes you the exception anyway.

  3. Wow. I sense that the disappoint was even greater because they “seemed” to care. It’s always more disappointing to find out that the reality is different than the message. When I fly Southwest I expect a cheap flight but great employees. When I buy fast food I expect crummy food and sub par service. It’s about expectations and they failed to meet them.

  4. I like that kind of attitude in a store. At least he did not waste your time. And he was probably not far off store policy. No means no. That there is a disconnect between soc-med efforts and frontline is not surprising. And even if the owner carved off more coin for his sales staff – maybe taking it out of the soc med and ad budget – and paying sales staff double what they are earning, it still wouldn’t matter. How on earth can we expect anyone in a retail sales position to care? I’d be suspicious if I found one.

  5. This is so true – I have had similar experiences with poor service however, I would like to point out that the other side is true as well. Although our efforts fail when the front lines fail, it can also be said that our efforts are multiplied when the front lines succeed.
    I pay more money than I should for coffee at a local coffee shop because the front line staff that work the morning shift are always super friendly and excited to see me, they know my order and treat me great. They make the experience so much better than a McDonals drivethu – even though truth be told, I probably prefer McDonalds coffee…

  6. So true: The Service-Profit chain is one of the utmost importance in developing and maintaining brand equity. Computer applications (mobile and otherwise) integrated into SOP’s certainly help. However, a basic level of caring must exist within each employee. As the employer/employee relationship exists within the context of capitalism, it stands to reason that the lessor-paid employee will care ‘less’ about the brand equity, than the CEO. Engaging your “front-lines” and ensuring their involvement in the development of the offering is a must!

  7. This story exemplifies the disconnect between the use of social media and being social.
    Some businesses just don’t get it and putting lipstick on a pig isn’t going to help.
    I’ve been to coffe shops where I’ve checked in on Foursquare with a comment, got a twitter response from a social media monitoring firm and when I later mentioned it to the staff, they had no idea that they were even on Foursquare. Oh, and the service sucked.
    I think the challenge isn’t to continue peddling social media like pushers at Berri-UQAM to every company that we see, but to concentrate on helping those companies that understand service and engagement be social businesses.

  8. Caring actually has nothing to do with the job position BMO. A certain segment of society does care and I am quite sure a proportionate number of them are in retail.

  9. I’ll second a lot of the other comments here. I’ve gone into low-end Dollar Stores and found very caring staff and I’ve had great stuff in mid-level retail establishments too. I think it speaks more to a unified corporate culture (which was the driving point of this Blog post in the first place).

  10. A great additional perspective. Jeffrey Gitomer (The Sales Bible) tells the story best: “All things being equal people want to do business with those they know, like and respect. All things being unequal, people still want to do business with those they know, like and respect.” It was true back then. It’s true now.

  11. One of the most frequently used, utterly meaningless and least sincere expreesions I hear when on the end of poor customer service is ‘I’m sorry, I can only apologise’ – No you can do more than that if you want to!

  12. I read somewhere that the 4 P’s of marketing should be changed to 5 P’s… the last stop in the chain is People. The clerks on the front line can make or break any brand. I have seen this so many times.

  13. I was worried that the discourse would switch to issues regarding customer service. I appreciate how everyone (including me) has these challenges… I’m actually on the phone fighting with my mobile provider as we speak. The bigger idea here is how do we get our marketing to permeate throughout the organization… especially down to the frontlines?

  14. I was talking with a Customer Service manager a few days ago about a similar issue and while she didn’t have any easy answers, she impressed upon me how much difficulty there is in getting front line people to care and to know how to improvise a given situation with a customer.
    Part of the answer, IMHO, is that people need to be able to take some amount of pride in both their work and their employer. If they don’t want to be there, that’ll show up in their conversations with customers.
    The old joke “the beatings will continue until morale improves” is funny because it’s true at a lot of companies.

  15. Mitch, well said. I’d add that leadership often invests more time and energy marketing the company’s products and services than it spends recognizing and developing frontline hourly employees. The result is an over-the-top marketing campaign with an underwhelming customer experience.

  16. Unfortunately, this happens more often than not. Companies are getting the hold of what a social media presence should be like (in a rudimentary way, but still), and yet in terms of true social interaction (meaning, in person) they lack so much sensibility… it’s cool that you open yourself to your customers, but the frontline is not just your Facebook wall.

  17. Well put Steve. I can’t tell you how many times as a front line retail employee just starting out, how I’d be poorly treated by head office, and then expected to smile and wax enthusiastic about the brand. Sure there were sour pusses I had to work with who wouldn’t serve customers well no matter what, but knowing that I didn’t have support from on high really made it hard to express joy and interest in customers.
    Cut to fifteen years later and a young friend of mine working in a shop here in Montreal. Her experience? totally the same.
    Bottom line, if your brand means anything to you, get EVERYONE pumped about what you want to accomplish, and then give them the time and support needed to make it happen. You’ll then quickly find that the few folks with a chip on their shoulder are easy to coach, or weed out entirely.

  18. “Bottom line, if your brand means anything to you, get EVERYONE pumped about what you want to accomplish, and then give them the time and support needed to make it happen.”
    Hey company CEOs, read this, will ya? Regards.
    I kid, but still… it seems so basic but as it turns out it’s easily overlooked. It’s sad, but it’s also an opportunity for improvement.

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