Front line employees are often overlooked in an agile transformation – but they can be the key to a truly successful approach.
When leading the second phase of an agile transformation, we put focus on transforming the business to an agile approach – which usually means introducing collaborative, design-thinking driven ways of working in our product development and innovation lifecycles. We introduce techniques such as Customer Journeys, Empathy Maps, and we train our Product Managers to be effective Product Owners. We might even go all the way to bringing some real life customers into our workshops – but this is rare, and even when it is done, these customers carry a lot of weight on their shoulders. They are -effectively- living “personas”, tasked with representing faithfully the desires of entire customer segments.
While these ideas and tecniques work well, nothing can replace the raw, unfiltered feedback your real customers give you on a regular basis – and no Product Owner can capture that like front line workers can.
Front Line employees are the people in your organization having direct contact with your customers on a daily basis, often for very short and standardized interactions. It can be a customer service rep, a salesperson, or a support technician. In many organizations these employees are not taken into account by “the business” when thinking about innovation and product development.
Learn to listen to your customers – constantly. Formal customer feedback methods (customer satisfaction surveys, focus groups, design thinking workshops, etc.) are great – but even better is when you combine it with a steady stream of informal feedback. Agile organizations capture detailed customer feedback constantly. In an agile organization, front line employees are encouraged to regularly establish close, unmonitored and healthy relationships with end customers in order to serve them better, but also to capture their thoughts and comments. This closeness supplies a steady stream of unstructured, informal feedback which is much better at capturing changing customer moods than formal methods.
Imagine your company’s products and services were all sold on Amazon.com – think about the quantity and quality of feedback you would get from the reviews. That’s what we’re looking for here. It’s not that easy if what you sell is insurance, or automobiles, or education. You need the involvement of your front line.
Empower your front line employees. One of the strongest characteristics of an innovative, agile organization is the empowerment and self-organization front line employees exhibit on a daily basis. They act on the feedback they receive from customers without being blocked by bureaucracy or having to ask for permission. They take risks on behalf of the customer, going out of their way to deliver what the customer needs (as long as it’s reasonable). This can mean anything from providing extraordinary customer service to passing along important feature requests directly to a Product Owner.
Autonomy and empowerment do not mean “do whatever you want”. A common mistake is to create a culture of autonomy, without putting in place the internal feedback loops necessary to capture such critical feedback. Nothing is more demotivating than knowing what your customer needs, but not being able to pass this information along to the right person. This is why successful agile organizations have a disciplined approach to sharing the precious feedback front line workers gather with the right Product Owners. And Product Owners communicate new features, roadmaps and product backlogs with openness and transparency. Make sure these mechanisms are in place before you go all-out and empower your front line workers!