Thursday, March 04, 2010

Note to all Managers - Give your front liners a good listening to

I’ve delivered 89 training workshops over the last 18 months to around 2000 staff working in Primary Healthcare across the UK. All are front line employees and all meet patients every day. Some of these employees meet as many as 300 patients in a day’s work of 7 hours. These folks know what they are talking about when it comes to healthcare delivery and they certainly know a thing or two about customers.

I love working in the training environment with front line employees who meet the customer. Of all the variety of things I now do in my work it is my favourite occupation.

Let me be absolutely clear - I am not on some sort of ‘let's knock managers’ evangelical rant here.

I was one and I’m proud to have been one. I gained an MA in Management (Healthcare) which was bloody hard work for God sake so I am not into the business of biting the hand that fed me for 35 years!

  • I was a healthcare manager for more than 30 years
  • I trained and developed professionally as a manager
  • I was damned proud to be a healthcare manager
And yet despite all that management experience I reckon I knew probably half as much as these folks do about REAL customer care.

However close we THINK we might be as managers to the customer there is nothing to beat actually meeting the customer face to face. That physical interaction cannot be reproduced in the heads of managers locked away in their warm and comfortable offices, far away from the action on the front line. “Away from the blood, the muck and the bullets” as my late beloved Dad used to say.

I learn in every workshop I run from every individual I meet that the experts in customer care are the people providing the service at the sharp end – not the managers.

We can articulate intelligently as much as we like about customer care; we can turn it into some academic science as much as we like; we can write books about it; we can regurgitate quotes about customer care from alleged ‘experts’ or ‘gurus’ but as managers there is nothing better we can do - if we really want to understand our customers - than to listen to the stories and the experiences of our people who actually meet the customers – sometimes 300 per day.

Well actually there is ONE better thing we can do … and that is to set aside EVERY DAY some time in our ‘busyness’ to actually meet and listen to customers directly.

Managers have crucial facilitating/coaching roles for our front liners and the most effective managers of course recognise that and just get on with making the front liners job easier rather than more difficult.

My point is that managers are at their best when they are listening and making the job easier for the folks who interact with our customers. Why don’t managers give their employees ‘a good listening to’ more often?

The frightening thing is this stuff is so simple!


Dave Wheeler said...


I recall a breakfast meeting our team had with our Regional Vice President right after I became a manager in my current job. He asked me what I thought our Center's greatest challenge was and I told him it was employee churn. He asked me what I thought the problem was and after giving him my perspective I suggested to him he could get the information straight from the source by asking the folks on the floor. His response? "Why would I want to do that"? and moved on.

Our Director however called me aside later that day and said she asked a few people what they thought the barriers to excellence were in our center and was surprised that, not only were people open and honest with their opinion...they also had suggestions what needed to be done. We ended up having a series of 15 90 minute meetings where she stood before every team member in our Center listening to their anger, complaints and suggestions. I would like to say this story had a "happy" ending but virtually every suggestion we forwarded was rejected by the Regional VP. Our Director however gained a great deal of credibility and respect with the team and several of her peers "benchmarked" our process with good to excellent results. The barriers to excellence in many organizations aren't on the frontline but rather in the executive offices who talk a great game but can't translate those words into action that improve performance. productivity and results. I have definitely over the years how seen tangible evidence that the four most important words in any organization are indeed "What Do You Think"?

Trevor Gay said...

Hi Dave – I’ve met folks like your Regional VP throughout my career. They seem almost frightened to do the common sense thing – that is to ask the folks doing the work. The older I’ve got the more I realise the truth in that.

I recall a very senior manager writing to me one time many years ago congratulating me for spending time on the front line alongside the folks who reported to me. He said this was the most challenging route for all managers and most managers prefer the easy option of sitting in the office and letting the system take the strain. I couldn’t really understand why he would write to me ‘congratulating me’ for something that I thought was just plain common sense and simply the right thing to do.

I’ve never forgot where I came from and I know you are the same my friend. Perhaps those who find it difficult to relate to front liners have never been there themselves – I’d love to research that.

“What do you think?” is a Dave Wheeler classic quote that you must copyright! – It’s so powerful and says it all.

Nick McCormick said...

So true Trevor. I'm not exactly sure why managers don't seek info from the front lines, but I have some hunches...

Some probably think they are above the riff-raff and there is very little to be learned by seeking their input.

Some are a bit insecure and would feel threatened if they were not the ones to come up with the ideas. That probably has something to do with why some managers call others' ideas their own.

I think there is also a feeling that whatever they are doing to fill up their day (typically attending meetings) is more important - certainly more important than the touchy feely people stuff.

The bottom line though is they march on merily without tapping the front liners. They don't do it. Their bosses don't do it. There's certainly no punishment for not doing it. Most will get rewarded their entire careers having never done it.

Trevor Gay said...

Fascinating – thanks Nick.

I’d never really thought about managers getting rewarded and making progress because they don’t get involved with their own front liners! You are absolutely right Sir! It’s the easy option isn’t it to just do the job without asking opinions of your folks. In my opinion the best and most effective managers ALWAYS ask for input.

A ‘Trevor’ suggestion - Why don’t we link ALL bonus payments of managers directly to how many ideas they implement from their own front liners?– What do you t think Nick?