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?

Why a Very Small Business Still Needs a Grand Vision

Org Have you ever considered the organizational chart for a one-person business? It might have only a single box with a single name on it, an immediate snapshot of sorts, or could look just like that of a more established business of the same industry or type. Most if not all of the functional needs are present from the start. Somebody is responsible for sales, customer service, operations, accounting, cleaning, collections and more, including to one degree or another, payroll. There is one big difference, though. On the organizational chart for a one-person business, the same person’s name holds every functional job title.

Is there a point to having a detailed organizational chart for an organization of one? Yes! Let me give you at least two good reasons. First, because mapping out an organization in this fashion forces the business owner to envision the business at a more fully established stage. What will that business look like when it .matures? How many functional departments must it have in order to strive? What functions will necessarily be fulfilled by internal staff, as opposed to being outsourced? Will this change over time? Even though the organizational chart begins with the same name on every line, it is based on a vision for the future, when that will no longer the case.

Which brings me to my second point: If in fact the business owner has a vision for the company that includes expansion and hiring, a detailed, forward-looking organizational chart illustrates all of the short, intermediate and long term goals that involve replacing the owner’s name for each successive job function, presumably from the bottom up, with that of another individual. This is a process that continues through the life cycle of the business, as the owner focuses progressively more time and effort on business development instead of day-to-day operations.

Imagine a one-person business starting up with an organizational chart that reflects the owner’s vision for his or her eventual exit strategy. That is a grand vision indeed and not always considered at such an early stage, but definitely within the realm of possibility.

Do you own a very small business? What does your organizational chart look like?