What Customers Can Learn from Front-Line Workers

In one of my previous lives, I purchased millions of dollars worth of personal protective equipment (PPE) each year from a large number of manufacturers and importers. During that time, from roughly 1984 until 1998, I developed some very strong opinions about businesses and the people who worked for them. One such opinion, which I stand by even today, is this: a company’s front-line workers — the people who answer the phone, take your orders, listen to your complaints and try to solve your problems — are the windows to the top floor of that company.

Simply put, I have found that if the people down at the bottom of an organization demonstrated genuine empathy for the people with whom they interacted, the leadership of that organization was likely to demonstrate some of the same traits. Similarly, if the front counter people made me feel as though my very presence was problematic, I would expect to find the same attitude upstairs. And regardless of which traits those front-line employees demonstrated, the more longevity they had with that company and that attitude, the more certain I was about the people upstairs. It got to a point where I would develop the utmost respect or the utmost contempt for a company’s president long before I even met that person.

Now admittedly, this principle is far more likely to prove itself out in smaller, privately held businesses. Why? Because in general, the more layers between a business’ owner and its customers, the more challenging it becomes for the owner/leader’s values, good or bad, to transcend all those layers. At that point the window becomes foggy and while somebody may be causing a particular attitude to dominate, we can’t always tell who.

Anybody can test this theory, right on the consumer level. Go to your local automobile repair joint, sandwich shop, lawn mowing service, etc. Make a fair assessment over a long period of time — long enough for the non-fits to go away. Then make a point of meeting the ownership. You will likely see a resemblance.

Business owners take note! What are your front-line people revealing about you to your customers?