The Front Line

Every Tuesday evening (9 pm EST) a group of people get together on Twitter to discuss Customer Service. You could call it a Tweet Chat, Twitter Jam or a Virtual Water Cooler. The Hashtag; the way in which participants can both filter out noise and denote participation is #custserv. I do not participate every Tuesday, but try and listen in and join in when the timing works and have been doing so for quite a while. The focus last night was on front line agents. The chats are archived, diligently by Marsha Collier, here. but just to share some quick stats regarding last night (October 9, 2012); 95 participants (give or take) and my absolute favorite zero links, in the >750 messages exchanged.

But, how much can actually be shared in 140 characters? Do people simply ‘talk’ and not listen? Everyone has their own approach some topic are more spirited than others, that is for sure. Some people represent big business, some medium, some one person solopreneurs; some consultants, authors, speakers, vendors and practitioners. The egos are checked at the ‘door’ everyone has an opinion that matters. To answer my first question, yes, quite a lot can be shared in 140 characters, it does amaze me sometimes. Of course, there is the occasional ‘sound bite’ but those are becoming more rare.

OK, so how important IS the Front Line Service Person?

As I stated, the topic was regarding front line agents – my quick response to this was “Frontline is an attitude, not a person”. Moving beyond the soundbite, there is a series of subtopics which arise and can be discussed. When I said it, what I was thinking about was actually a bit of a technical spin, but even then there is so much more. The topic of the human element is very important and I will leave that to experts like Kate Nasser – check her work, it is time well spent. However, increasingly, the front line of your organization is technical – sometimes guided by humans, sometimes not. While I do not want to conjure images of battles, the front line of modern warfare is almost all electronic, with human input and intelligence playing a supporting role.

(No, I do not want you to consider doing battle with your customers – I was just making a point. Do a Google search for Front Line, I dare you)

Yes, each bit of technology should be carefully vetted, reviewed, scrutinized and checked again before deployment; but technology as the most likely front line agent is highly likely. From static websites, to FAQs and videos to knowledge bases and Integrated Voice Response systems and automatic email replies and avatar type text chats, non-humans are the only way many businesses are going to be able to scale. Because, in the end, businesses are there to make money. It is a tough, competitive, world out there and every chance they get to be more efficient will be taken.

Is this about Customer Service, Customer Experience, Customer Satisfaction or Social CRM – Yes!

  1. grahamrhill
    October 12, 2012 at 2:16 am

    Hi Mitch

    Hmmm. The front-line of customer service.

    Your post raises two immediate questions in my mind. One which you tackled in-part and one which you didn’t.

    The one you didn’t is the question of where exactly is the front-line today. In the past the front-line was the boundary between the walled-in Company tossing products and services over the parapet and the massed customers outside the wall, gamely trying to use the products to do important jobs and achieve the outcomes they want. The front-line was provided by a boundary layer of customer service agents, sometimes in retail outlets but more often than not at the end of a telephone, an email or even a letter. But there definitely was a boundary.

    Today, the boundary has changed; it has got broader and more amorphous. It has got broader because customer service may be provided by a front-line of customer service agents, but it may just as well be provided by technical staff inside the Company, outsourced partners in another Company, or even by customers for each other. The boundary layer has broadened beyond recognition. It has also become more amorphous as customers and the new fat front-line have adopted new technologies to help them, such as twitter, facebook and avatars. And as customer service has morphed from something that you sought after the point of sale when things went wrong, to service (a la service-dominant logic) that you seek at key points throughout the end-to-end customer experience, particularly during the weeks, months or even years of using the product.

    The one you did is the question of who, or rather what provides customer service. In the past the customer service agent was invariably a human being employed by the Company. But the Customer Service Department was a cost centre and agents were often poorly-skilled and incentivised to get rid of customer service contacts as quickly as possible and at as low a cost as possible. The Company already had the customer’s money and unless there was more money in the offing it had little interest in providing the sort of service that customers thought they had already bought when they handed over their money. As Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel points out, markets and morals make for uncomfortable bedfellows.

    Today, as we have already seen, customer service may be provided by an outsourced human being in a low-skill, low-wage country like India. As the hilarious scene in the Transformers film shows – where a soldier in an emergency on the military front-line has to go through a commercial Indian call-centre to call in an air strike – cheaper doesn’t usually mean better, at least not from the customer’s perspective. Increasingly, Companies are doing without human beings completely, replacing customer service agents with self-service systems, with automated systems and in the near future, with Turing-Test passing robots that will understand your enquiry and provide an answer in your preferred language. Unlike the Indian agents who sort of speak your language, but not really enough to help you solve your query!

    Who knows what the future will bring. My hope is that rise of service-dominant logic will persuade Companies to move from a focus on just the point of exchange (where customer service is automatically an additional cost) to more of a focus on co-created value-in-use over the customer lifecycle (where service is an opportunity to earn incremental revenues).

    More automation is a given, but let’s face it, could that be any worse than dealing with a dirt cheap but utterly useless Indian call centre manned by people seemingly from a foreign planet?

    Graham Hill

    • Mitch Lieberman
      October 12, 2012 at 8:07 am


      Thanks for the comments – fair points. I could take this conversation to a pure cellular biology route and we would be among the few who would understand (we have move from plant life and cell walls to cell membranes..but, we can save that for a live discussion).

      Your point regarding where is the front line is excellent, and I would extend further and focus on the ‘who’ – it is the ecosystem of people and their own supporting technologies and ecosystems. When my Android phone has a problem, it seems that my carrier has trained me well to go out to the Android ecosystem and ask them what the issue is about. The carrier only gets involved when there is a network issue (or sim card issue). But, again, to your point, they are most concerned about collecting their money every month.

      This is the part of the Customer Service conversation that I am trying to extend. There are some very smart people who participate in the conversation – what we need is for the rest of the organization to participate in the conversation so we can solve the bigger issues.

      I am very impressed with the transformers call-out 🙂


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