To drive success, businesses need to empower frontline sales and customer service workers

A new Harvard Business Review study concludes many companies are failing to use the data analytics they have to improve customer satisfaction.

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Rich data analytics are available to many companies to bolster critical sales and customer service operations with a goal of constantly improving all-important customer satisfaction. But a new Harvard Business Review study shows that even with such analytics at their fingertips, many companies are failing to use such data to give their frontline workers the tools and decision-making powers that can bring happy customers back again and again.
 
The 16-page report, "The New Decision Makers: Equipping Frontline Workers for Success," gives many businesses failing grades when it comes to taking advantage of new technologies to improve customer experiences with their customer-facing frontline workers.
 
Conducted by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services in January and sponsored by search and AI-analytics vendor ThoughtSpot, the report provides insights from 464 business executives from 16 industry sectors in North America, Europe and Asia Pacific on how more training and empowerment must be provided to core frontline workers.
 
"The challenge now is to empower frontline workers in a way that creates both free agency for them and proper controls for the organization," the report states. "What makes this possible is the ready availability of high-quality information and insights at the point of contact with customers and operations, along with the digital tools and procedures to ensure compliance with company guidelines and industry regulations."

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Using this data inside a company "has changed dramatically the work and types of people who can do the work," Kerry Small, who heads global commercial and operations for Vodafone Business, said in the study. Small leads commercial and sales teams, delivery teams, and customer service professionals at Vodafone. "It's absolutely transformational for the world of work," she said.
 
Some 43% of the respondents said they do not empower or equip their workforces with the right tools to address business needs, while only 7% of organizations said they are using such tools to drive their customer service capabilities, according to the study.
 
At the same time, 90% of the respondents said their customer service would improve if they took steps to use the analytics and data they already have available to their organizations, said Sudheesh Nair, CEO of ThoughtSpot.
 
Ten years ago, a consumer could call a company on the phone and often be able to speak directly to a customer service representative and receive assistance, good or bad, Nair said. But today, a customer typically dials a phone number, reaches an automated message or bot and then has to press through several phone menus to authenticate themselves before finally reaching a live representative.
 
But even after all that, it's not over, said Nair. Then a customer has to give much of their personal information to that live representative—even though the customer already entered their identification and account information into the phone or customer service app.

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That's not it should be, and that's a customer service failure caused by companies that are not preparing their employees for a streamline customer experience, said Nair.
 
"Today companies are making it difficult to reach someone, and then customers have to talk to AI bots or push many buttons, which is showing a lot of patience by consumers," he said. Companies make consumers go through these elaborate and uncalled for procedures even after customers have already provided the needed information.
 
Then, even worse, customers often tell their customer service problems to one frontline worker who listens and then hands the call over to yet another representative to see if they can resolve things for the consumer, said Nair. Sadly, consumers have been forced to accept this fate, and that's wrong, he added.
 
"I don't care how big you are, don't make me talk to another person and explain it all again," said Nair. "Consumers are willing to give more data about themselves, and in return, we are asking companies to treat us like a person."
 
For consumers, it's extremely important that the frontline workers are aware during an interaction of all the information a customer had provided, said Nair. "That is the broken piece here. But it's very clear from everyone's experiences that the companies are using that information to deliver marketing, but they are not delivering to the last mile where the rubber meets the road, where consumers want to talk to them. What good is it if the data and the analytics are not getting to the frontline worker who is the only person in your organization who communicates with the actual customers of your business?"
 
And that's where frontline workers are already there to save the day—if their companies will give them the tools to do their jobs to dramatically improve their customer service operations for consumers, he said.
 
Some 72% of the study respondents said their frontline customer service teams reported productivity increases when they were directly empowered with analytics and data-powered decision-making capabilities that allowed them to better serve consumers, the report concludes. About 69% of the respondents said their frontline employees experienced a higher level of satisfaction and engagement when they are given these abilities as part of their jobs.

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 So why aren't more companies allowing frontline workers to take the initiative to provide better customer service?

"Most of the time you think it is because of inadequate data technology or tools," said Nair. But instead, the study found that the chief reason for the low percentage is that leadership doesn't engage in adopting such improvements, he said. Frontline workers aren't getting the training they need to use the tools and they aren't getting support from executives.
 
"It is all about top management. For some of them, it is the politics and inertia that prevents them from moving forward," he said. "For some, data is scary for them. They would rather lean on their gut instincts and the experiences they have gained from being in the business. They would rather make gut calls rather than data-driven calls on how to proceed."

In addition to providing employees with the digital tools and information they need, supporters of the frontline worker empowerment movement "need to enlist company leaders to drive culture change" to make this a permanent part of their culture, the report states. "Training and change programs must engage all parts of the organization, from leaders to middle managers to the frontline workers themselves."

The study was conducted in January 2020, before the COVID-10 coronavirus pandemic was in full swing. The 464 respondents who participated were drawn from the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council and from Harvard Business Review e-newsletter lists. 
 
"The need for this has increased because of COVID-19 and some of these numbers will actually go up because of COVID-19," said Nair. 
 

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