Working at the ‘Coal Face’ in 2016!

Accountability Management


Key Point: Executives can easily get caught up in big time strategy planning, swallowed up in cool ideas revolving around disruption, transformation, digital technology and a host of other compelling topics. And they must. However, it is so easy to forget about where leadership energy has the most immediate and powerful impact: At the interface between employees and customers. In the United Kingdom, the frontline (in historical reference to coal miners), is often described as the “coal face.”

The other day I had problem with my cable box. And I hope my cable company knows I’m a “hair” away from cancelling and going exclusively with Apple TV, Netflix and other combinations. For now, I’m hanging in there. The other night I had a problem, and after the obligatory “reboot,” I called customer service. Following the inevitable and laborious phone tree, and too long of a wait, the customer technician was finally on the phone with me. To troubleshoot, he asked me to identify the serial number on the set top box. Geez, here we go again. I had to crawl on my hands and knees, use the flashlight on my iPhone, get a magnifying glass (literally) to read a 20 digit number from a minute font on the back of the box that a golden eagle would have trouble seeing. First of all, a customer should never have to do that at all. Yet this was probably literally the 15th time over my cable paying years in Canada and the U.S. I’ve done that, and every time I’ve complained. I feel so sorry for the customer service rep: “I apologize Mr. Rubis, and we are working with the set top box suppliers to address that matter.” Really? That’s what I heard eight years ago!” And of course, I know this frontline person can’t actually make that change. But here is what I do know: No one leader with any authority genuinely cares. If they did, something would have been done a long time ago. Cable companies buy millions of set top boxes, and if they really wanted a different customer experience on something as simple as font size of serial numbers Motorola and other suppliers would promptly comply. No one cares enough to address it. The poor frontline agent has to absorb the frustration repeatedly. And I can’t only pick on cable companies. In our business, we put customer service phone numbers on the back of our credit cards that are so small that the real message seems to be: “If you really have to call, and we hope you don’t, please squint and call the following number. Hope you get the number right.”

I’ve been looking at employee engagement numbers for years and the one consistent theme and priority for people is to give them the tools and information to consistently give customers and each other a superb experience. It’s as simple and as difficult as that. The data I’ve reviewed stresses that the ability to do my job well, and give those I deliver my personal service to (i.e. my brand integrity), a great experience is even more important than pay. It is a huge, and I believe primary source of employee satisfaction and dissatisfaction. If that is the case, why do we continuously throw customer-facing people under the bus? For example, a poor quality new product or service is released and customer service reps get slammed with calls about the defects. An out of date policy makes a sales person look stupid and often powerless. Etc, etc. Want to change an organization quickly? Take 20 percent of the issues causing 80 percent of customer unhappiness and transform the business around those. As leaders of most businesses we intuitively know that, but most of us just can’t seem to make that the number one priority and intense focus. Why?

Character Moves:

  1. Every single person in any company, especially formal leaders, should have to live and work in a customer-facing role on a regular basis. If we really want to dramatically improve employee engagement and customer experience; including being disruptive, that would take us a long way there.

At the “coal face” in the Triangle,


One Millennial View: Even if that show “Undercover Boss” is fake/manipulated (like all reality TV generally is), viewers recognize that almost all executives immediately get a true gut check when taking on a customer-facing role (often for the first time in years, if ever). So speaking of potential progress, at least they’re making moves in the cable department: If you don’t know already, check out DirecTV Now. The cable box-less future is here, folks. 

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis