"Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you're a thousand miles from the corn field."
One of my favourite things to do in a service improvement role is spending time with customer-facing colleagues (by 'customer', I could also mean citizen, service user, client, patient, etc.) I used to work in customer-facing roles myself, and miss being able to make an immediate difference. I also find it incredibly useful for understanding how a service can be improved.
At the same time, I appreciate that some people don't enjoy the prospect of going to the coalface.
In this post, I'm going to give some reasons why you absolutely should spend time with customer-facing colleagues. I'm also going to offer some advice and a few questions you could ask your colleagues. These questions have worked really well for me, from a service improvement perspective.
I'm hoping that, by sharing this advice, some of you become a little less reluctant to go to the front-line, and feel encouraged to give it a go. If you already spend time with customer-facing staff, reading on may help you get even more from the experience.
Why do it?
If you're not a customer-facing worker – for example, if you're a manager or work in a support role (IT, HR, Policy, somewhere in the 'corporate centre', etc) I'd say it's essential you spend regular time at the front-line. I'd also recommend doing it if you are a customer-facing worker and want to learn more about another team. Why? Here are just a few reasons:
- The legendary business writer Tom Peters has referred to a conversation he had with Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks*. It's a huge organisation, yet despite the inevitable bureaucracy, hierarchy, meetings, and reports, Schultz says he visits at least 25 Starbucks stores a week. He apparently said that "...we still sell one cup at a time, one customer at a time, one server at a time. I need to see it, touch it, and feel it". Peters calls this MBWA (Managing By Wandering Around). If you're from a Lean background, you might call this the equivalent of doing a gemba walk or genchi genbutsu.
- As the picture below says better than words could, your customer-facing colleagues are the ones who have the greatest knowledge of what matters to the customer, and what gets in the way of helping the customer. They often have the best insights in to how you can improve service. I always find colleagues respond well when I spend time with them and seek their views. They especially love it when I bring a leader from the organisation along with me – they appreciate the leader taking them seriously, and the leader becomes more highly respected as a result. If you're not getting these insights directly, you're missing big opportunities to improve your organisation and build important relationships with your colleagues.
- Human Factors expert Steven Shorrock writes in this superb blog post about the 'four varieties of human work'. I've summarised and simplified these in the quadrants below. Work as imagined is what you think people do. Work as prescribed is what the policy or procedure says people should do. Work a disclosed is what people say about their work. None of these represent work as done, what Shorrock describes as "the most important yet most neglected variety of human work". And you're not going to get anywhere near to work as done by reading reports, staff survey results, process maps, or fancy charts. You need to spend some time 'in the work' with your customer-facing colleagues.
Questions to ask customer-facing colleagues
The following questions have worked really well for me, from a service improvement perspective. I initially borrowed and adapted some questions recommended by the folks at Vanguard. When I ask these questions, people tend to really engage, and their answers give lots of information and clues about how and where the service could improve.
- Where does your work come from, and how fit for purpose is it when it arrives? This one is good to ask people who receive work from someone else. Referrals, for example. It gives you some clues about the quality of work they receive, and how much rework they have to do to get it right.
- Can you show me what you do with the work when it arrives? As a general principle, it's best to aim for 'show' rather than 'tell'. This gets you closer to work as done, instead of work as disclosed (see above).
- Why do you do it this way? This may demonstrate the rules, policies, and procedures that staff are expected to follow. Or they may reveal workarounds they have to do to get around constraints.
- What gets in the way of you doing a good job? If you're only going to ask one question, ask this one. I find people really open up to this one, pointing out many areas where they are hindered in doing what matters to the customer. Keep asking "what else?" to learn even more.
- What wastes your time? Similar to the last one. I often find I start to learn more about the type and frequency of failure demand in the answers to this one.
- How much, and how often? A supplementary question for any of the above. This helps you to start to quantify the waste in the service. For example, I once found that around 60% of referrals received by one team needed to be reworked.
- What numbers does your manager pay attention to? This one may reveal the impact of targets or other arbitrary measures.
- How do you know if you are doing a good job? You'll often find out here if people are clear about purpose, or (linked to the previous question) if the focus is instead on trying to make the numbers look good.
- How does change happen around here? This will tell you how people feel, in terms of being involved and engaged with change.
I recommend trying to ask these questions naturally in conversation – rather than looking like you are coming around with a clipboard and a survey. It may be worth committing a few of them to memory first.
And most importantly, when you ask these questions, listen! As my friend Jo Gibson says, "give people a damn good listening to". Remember you're here to learn, not to judge or defend current ways of working. As Dale Carnegie wrote, "become genuinely interested in other people". And demonstrate what Amy Edmondson calls 'situational humility' – make sure people know that you don't think you have all the answers, be curious, and emphasise that we can always learn more.
Over to you...
What are your thoughts? What other reasons are there to spend time with customer-facing colleagues? What can put people off doing it? And what do you think of the questions I suggested?
Please feel free to comment below, or share this on Twitter or LinkedIn, or with someone who might appreciate it.
*Yes, I know Starbucks don't pay enough tax and put too much sugar in their drinks. That's not the point here. The point is that the CEO of an undeniably successful and huge organisation found it essential to regularly spend time with customer-facing colleagues and literally 'smell the coffee'.