Most of us have heard the expression, "The frontline is the bottom line," as it pertains to a company's employees. It means that as far as the customer is concerned, a company's frontline employees are the company. After all, rarely do customers come in contact with an organization’s executives.
Those frontline employees are truly the face of the organization. But as leaders, do we perform in a way that is consistent with the frontline equals bottom line philosophy? In many cases, I think the answer is no.
It’s hard for me to think of a better example of the frontline equals the bottom line philosophy than what we are all experiencing right now. Businesses of all kinds find themselves struggling to find frontline workers. Just over the past few months, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve pulled up to a drive thru restaurant, only to find them closed or completely overwhelmed because they don’t have enough staff to manage their customers.
Business owners that I talk with are now having to get behind the counter to service customers themselves because one of their remaining employees called in sick and there is no one else that can fill in for them.
Frontline staff in hotels are being asked to pick up the slack after several of their co-workers were furloughed and not brought back because management felt they could do without them and meet their guests’ minimum needs. This has placed an enormous strain on staff members and employee burnout is becoming a significant problem.
It’s not hard to see how truly important the frontline staff is for any business.
I was pondering this issue a while back while I sat eating in a TGI Fridays restaurant. As I was observing the employees, the reality of the situation hit me. These servers, bus boys, etc. are the most important people in the company. I knew this intellectually (I've talked about it for years), but the trueness of it hit me at that moment.
These employees are typically the lowest paid in the organization, treated as expendable, often treated in a condescending manner, and yet they are the most important people in the company. If these employees fail in their duties, it makes no difference how smart the Sr. VP of Marketing is. The transaction between the customer and the company (the frontline employee) can so easily crash and burn.
This is true in restaurants, hospitals, banks, grocery stores or any other industry/organization. Executives can call in sick, but if the truck drivers for a distribution center don't show up one day, now there is a situation. When they do their jobs with pride and enthusiasm, the likelihood of company success is exponentially increased. When they do their jobs with boredom and skepticism, the greatest technology systems in the world won't help.
We should treat our frontline employees like the stars they are. We should honor them for the work they do because they are the ones that make the world turn. All of our strategies, visions, and corporate goals are only as good as the execution of those plans, and execution ultimately comes down to frontline people doing things. Theirs is the most honest work of all.
The customer was either happy or she wasn't. The delivery either happened on time or it did not. The cooler was either stocked or not. The food was either hot or it was not. The frontline doesn't need a report in a binder to know how things are going. The score is real time for them.
I think what is missing in business today is knowing the importance of the frontline at a gut level. Most of us know that we should say the frontline is the bottom line, but I don't think it often shines through in our actions. If it did, we would be having pizza parties regularly, pitching in to help when things are busy, taking employees to lunch regularly to ask what can be improved. We would hold celebrations all the time. We would say thank you at every opportunity.
Think about those times in your personal life when you were grateful for something that someone did. I mean truly grateful. Remember how sincere and heartfelt your appreciation was toward that person? Can you remember the last time you showed that level of appreciation to an employee or group of employees in your organization?
The need to be appreciated is one of the strongest needs of all. When employees work hard all day, doing the real work of the company, being treated with honor isn't too much to ask.
Having a lavish holiday party for the executive team while giving me a $2 tree ornament says something about how you feel about my contributions. Walking by the reception desk, the loading dock, or the stockroom without acknowledging employees, taking a moment to see how things are going, or just saying thanks, are all behaviors that tell employees what management really thinks. Is it any wonder that turnover in frontline positions is so ridiculously high?
When my wife and I were both working, we had a housekeeper, Val, who cleaned our house once a week. She was truly an excellent housekeeper and would clean even the hardest to reach areas. Debbie (my wife) sincerely appreciated the extra effort and would always show her appreciation. My wife and Val became good friends. One time Val mentioned that although she cleaned a lot of houses, Debbie was the only one who appreciated those extra touches and actually showed appreciation.
What is important to note is that Debbie didn't say thank you to get Val to do the extras. Debbie thanked Val because she did the extras. Val, however, said that she wanted to do more because of the appreciation. It was simply a sincere cycle of performance and appreciation. Saying thank you and recognizing the people who work hard is simply the right thing to do. And usually when we do the right thing, we get the right thing in return. Not always, but usually.
You know who the frontline employees are in your own organization. I challenge you to take a hard look at the level of appreciation that you show to those frontline employees. Do they know that you appreciate them? How do they know that you appreciate them?
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