The harsh front lines

A while ago I read something quite interesting on LinkedIn, it was a story of how a marketer realized the power of a single cashier at IKEA’s restaurant. He was having a bad day and the disruptive and positive personality of that single person made his day much better. The story was quite heart warming, as always when you find the right person in the right place it makes a huge difference to those that are visiting a company and might have a bad day.

What was fascinating about the story wasn't actually the story, but how, in 2014 (I’m quite certain it was last year I read it) this baffles marketers, HR and company owners. We are used to walking into stores only by being greeted by the most unprofessional and uninterested employees the world has ever seen. There is no doubt about it, most people working in these retail shops hate their jobs or are, at least, uninspired by them.

Who can blame them though, they are paid minimal wage with long hours performing menial task ad infinitum. They are demanded to be polite, helpful and nice while still performing their duties at an alarming speed. In other words, we expect those that work in shops to be less human and more robotic, synthetic, because humans have flaws and we can’t have that.

We can understand the system better if we acknowledge that many workers in shops are replaceable. It is grim to think like that, but reality is reality and there is no point in sugar coating it. Ever visited a food store? The amount of young, inexperienced guys and girls that stack shelves for hours at end usually litter the isles. They are cheap, rather ineffective, but cheap. Tomorrow when one doesn't show up he/she can be replaced, no big deal! Perfect, the machinery will go on for another day.

At the same time companies are spending more time developing their brands, both online and in the real world. Food companies have their branded commercials everywhere on TV, Youtube, all the social media sites, their website and of course their shops. The brand looks good, on paper.

What we are forgetting by doing this is quite simply the value of front line soldiers in our business and if you are running a shop, I am sure you have forgotten it too. We have adopted a system where those that are closest to our customers are ill equipped to give a good impression of the brand. This comes back to something Marine Corps Commandant General Charles Krulak wrote in an article in 1999 about the army.

In many cases, the individual Marine will be the most conspicuous symbol of American foreign policy and will potentially influence not only the immediate tactical situation, but the operational and strategic levels as well. His actions, therefore, will directly impact the outcome of the larger operation; and he will become, as the title of this article suggests — the Strategic Corporal.

This was later adopted into business by Jeff Sexton and further popularized by Seth Godin in his book ‘Linchpin’. They put something together called Krulak’s Law, which goes like this:

The closer you get to the front, the more power you have over the brand.

Yet, today we barely see any adaptation of this law, even though it is painstakingly obvious that people that are closer to your customers will have a larger effect on your brand. In effect, those that meet your customers should be prepared to deliver the same message as your website and other brand outlets do, but they are neither payed to do so or inspired by management to do so. We do like to think that the model we have adopted now is a good one, because untrained employees are easy to replace, but the harm they can cause by being cheap and replaceable is a large danger in the world we live in today, the interconnected world.

A better way would be to inspire and educate these front line soldiers to maximize the brand power you can get from them rather than seeing them as disposable resources. If your front line soldiers are ready to and able to make an angry customer happy, he or she should be rewarded for it. If your front line soldier is capable of rescuing a deal gone sour he should be rewarded for it, because some things can’t be fixed with abstract signs and fake social media apologies. Some things have to be fixed by those that are down there, holding your banner high.