The importance of front-line staff

“If you told me at the beginning of the year that British Vogue’s cover stars would feature a community midwife, a train driver and a supermarket worker, I might not have believed you. But, as our nation perseveres against Covid-19, we find ourselves leaning not on the powers that be, but on ordinary people and their extraordinary strength and kindness.” – Edward Enninful, editor of British Vogue.

Image: British Vogue July edition 2020, Narguis Horsford, Train driver for TfL

COVID-19 has bought with it a significant disruption to many aspects of our lives. However, there has been a universal recognition for the efforts and importance of front-line staff. Many of these were recognised pre-COVID as critical – doctors, nurses. But this crisis has emphasised the importance of often-overlooked workers – the stalwart employees turning up to serve and deliver essential services.

If we keep one thing from this crisis, let it be that new-found appreciation for these frontline people who are the visible face of the organisations we transact with. The rewards and fame have historically been reserved for the CEO and the execs. But in these times we’ve reacquainted ourselves with who is really important to us as a society, and the difference these individuals make to our service experiences. 

There has long been a tension with companies seeing the potential of technology to deliver more and more of the interaction with customers. Perhaps most strikingly we can see this in airports where from check-in, immigration and boarding, the interaction with a human operator is slowly disappearing. The result has been a steady cutting in jobs for frontline staff.

So what is the answer? How can we get the best of both worlds – efficiency and human touch? The challenge is to rethink the human role in that last inch of the service.

This will face an increasing challenge in the post-COVID 19 world – in the short term, there are potential staff available from furlough. But at the same time, social distancing may drive operators towards more customer-technology interactions – for example, the use of biometrics means no staff and no touching devicesMicrosoft’s CEO recently talked about COVID-19 driving two years worth of digital transformation in two months as the crisis impacts every aspect of home and work.

Different organisations will discover their own path through this but the reassurance and assistance that comes from human presence and interaction is, we think, going to be important in rebuilding customer confidence in using services like travel. 

What the technology does bring is a more available and accessible channel.  This is especially true when things go wrong and there are problems. We’ve all encountered a disruption in service and the following frustration when there isn’t a member of staff to be found – in person, via phone or otherwise. 

Technology developments such as chatbots will undoubtedly improve in their ability to answer a wider range of questions, but consumer trust still needs to be earned. We’ve seen this in the COVID-19 crisis as organisations have to turn to other channels and they’ve been found to work.

This will also change the nature of roles open to staff. There is a great opportunity for these roles to become enriched and more meaningful. As organisations recognise the value of these people they will need to be more skilled and better selected – which should result in them being better paid as well. 

An example of this is the assistance agents provided by airports to help passengers needing assistance to get through the airport. A survey found that the assistance experience not only leaves around a quarter of disabled passengers dissatisfied, but had compounding effects on passenger confidence to travel in the future. 

The quality of this service is generally regarded as poor for a range of reasons but contributing factors are the low levels of pay, status, and lack of career opportunities for staff in this role. 

People in that last inch of the service have a place in the future – the customer demand for a balance between efficiency and personal touch is evident – and these times have been a clear reminder of that. But the nature of those roles for staff will need to adapt and change. There are potential positives in this change for customers and staff. The challenge is which businesses will succeed in blending the digital and human and use this to deliver better, more inclusive services?

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David Watts

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