Fixing Frontline Work with Aaron Ward

AskNicely Team

In February 2022, hundreds of leaders from service businesses across the world gathered together online to take part in the Global Frontline Experience Summit, an event sponsored by AskNicely.  It was a phenomenal event with a contagious heaping of inspiration, excitement and possibility for anyone working in the customer experience and frontline service space.

Aaron Ward, CEO of AskNicely, kicked off the Global Frontline Experience Summit by addressing the elephant in the room: “we need to talk about fixing frontline work”.  In an interview with Robert Galop, Aaron walks us through why frontline work is broken, the fundamental opportunity to reframe frontline work in a post pandemic world, and how we can go about enabling frontline workers to feel motivated, empowered and supported to deliver awesome customer experiences every time. 

Why Frontline Work is Broken - The Problem 👎

Frontline workers make up a whopping 80% of the global workforce, yet they continue to be under-served, under-appreciated and under-paid. “It’s kinda crazy,” Aaron says, especially, as they’re the very people responsible for determining the experience a customer has. From working with thousands of service businesses, what we like to call ‘people-powered businesses’ Aaron has identified some fundamental issues which have resulted in a broken system. 

  1. Leaders are struggling to attract frontline workers. 

There is a surplus of work openings, and not enough willing frontline workers to fill them. 

I think the issue that we're hearing again and again from leaders is that they’re struggling with recruiting people to work in the frontline.” 

Why is this happening? Well, let’s not sugarcoat it, frontline work is tough work. These teams feel the direct brunt of customer complaints and conflict, not to mention the fact that they are literally risking their lives every day in a COVID-19 world. The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that there were 10.4 million frontline job openings in the United States in August 2021, and companies were struggling to fill them. This is the first telltale that something isn’t right. 

  1. Leaders are struggling to retain frontline workers. 

If companies are lucky enough to find themselves with a sufficient frontline workforce, the next challenge becomes retaining them. 

“And then when you've got those people, how do you retain them? How do you keep them engaged, such that they stay in that role and they build mastery in that role and they become better and better at delivering customer experiences.”

The statistics are undeniable: more than 50 percent of all new hourly employees quit or are terminated within six months of being hired. That’s a lot of talent, and a lot of money down the drain. In the hospitality industry, for example, every worker who leaves his/her job costs the employer between $3,000 and $13,000 according to a report by the Institute for a Competitive Workforce

  1. Frontline Workers Have Been Neglected By Software 
“The software industry has done a pretty good job building software for salespeople, marketers, developers and accountants but have all but ignored the service person on the frontline who deals with the actual customer.”

Despite the critical role frontline workers play in the success of an organization, they’ve been largely left out of technological innovation. A Forrester study found that only 23% of frontline workers feel they have access to the technology they need to be productive. 

It’s clear to see, frontline work is broken. The implication of this? Poor frontline experiences and poor customer experiences. When frontline workers aren’t attracted to their jobs in the first place, don’t have any interest in keeping them and are forgotten about when it comes to technology, not only do they have a terrible time, but they deliver terrible experiences, too.

While this all may sound a bit doom and gloom, don’t worry, an opportunity is just around the corner…

Why NOW is The Time to Change Things - The Opportunity 💡 

Why now? Why is there a pressing opportunity to fix frontline work? asks Robert. Aaron explains that we’ve all built a new level of appreciation for frontline workers over the past two years of the pandemic. Whether it’s the person that’s serving your coffee, your dentist, the pest control guy that comes to your home or the guy that fixes your car, these are the essential services we need to keep the world moving forward. We’ve all come to realize just how important frontline work is. 

“I think that now, as we are coming into the next phase of life, hopefully in a post COVID world and service businesses are reopening their doors, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to rethink the narrative of frontline work” 

From operating models, to customer service models to recruiting staff, we have an opportunity to reframe how we look at frontline work, and most importantly, how we treat our frontline teams. 

“It’s a critical time to really take advantage of.”

It’s a second chance, a clean slate if you will, to build employee experience and customer centricity into the DNA of our companies. 

How to Fix Frontline Work - The Solution 👍

There’s no single answer when it comes to fixing frontline work, which is exactly why the Global Frontline Experience Summit exists — to bring together new and exciting ways to engage and support frontline teams to show up as the best versions of themselves.

Aaron’s thoughts? 

  1. Lead From the Frontline

The traditional top down customer experience approach no longer works. Think about some of the world's most successful experience brands, like Uber, Starbucks and Disney. They don’t use traditional top down approaches. Uber, for example, has four million frontline workers sitting behind the wheel of a car, each of them charged with delivering a 5 star experience to every customer. No managers, no supervisors, no monthly performance reviews. The way they coach and motivate their frontline team is through a mobile app, that’s led from the frontline.

  1. Improve Experience Through Daily Habits 

Service businesses like Starbucks, Disney and the Marriott have a  disciplined playbook that they have refined over time, which includes a set of daily habits that help motivate, empower and celebrate frontline teams to deliver awesome experiences. When you grab a coffee from a Starbucks, have a family day at Disney or stay at the Marriott, it’s likely you’ll receive a consistent level of quality service. That’s no coincidence. It’s the result of a set of daily habits that, when put together and applied consistently on a daily basis, create a powerful bond of purpose for each frontline employee that is reinforced by feedback, recognition, coaching and empowerment. 

Want to know what those habits are? We wrote the book on frontline success. It’s a quick read, and it’s free! Check it out here.

  1. Focus on Recognition 

Out of all of the seven daily habits, Aaron feels the strongest about recognition. 

“We believe that people are motivated by positive feedback, it’s the idea of catching people doing things right.”

Aaron takes us back to Kindergarten, when he received his  first gold star for doing well…

“I still remember how I felt. And I think the reason that I remember today, how I felt as a four year old is because I still feel that same way today. When somebody comes up to me and says, Aaron we’re really lucky to have you, you did a really good job on that thing. I still get the same hit of dopamine today, that I did as a four year old.”

A study from Socialcast found that 69% of employees would work harder if they felt their efforts were better appreciated. The issue? They don't feel appreciated! Most of the time frontline workers hear feedback, it’s because something’s gone wrong. Frontline workers don’t hear enough when things go right. 

Before your frontline team can go out there and achieve their goals, talk to customers and deliver awesome experiences, they need to be feeling good in themselves. Through regularly recognizing achievements, you can help them do that. 

Aaron’s message was clear: frontline work is broken, now is the time to fix it, and let’s talk solutions; which the following speakers at the Summit addressed. 

Keep an eye on the AskNicely blog for a deep dive into each presentation from the Summit, including keynotes from leaders such as Christine McHugh (Starbucks), Charles Ray Minton (Marriott) and Dan Cockerell (Disney). A HUGE thank you to all of our incredible speakers, fellow sponsors, guests and organizers, it truly was an awesome day. 

Want to hear about more solutions to fixing frontline work? You’re in the right place. Join the Frontline Magic Community to gain access to all of the presentations from this year’s summit + be the first to know of new events, frontline news and more. If you’re really ready to get started, let’s chat about how AskNicely’s Frontline Success Platform can help.

AskNicely Team
About the author

AskNicely Team

AskNicely Team
About the author

AskNicely Team

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