PRB Articles


Arm The Front Lines

Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / Goodluz

There is perhaps nothing as fundamental for parks and recreation organizations as customer service. Let’s face it, those who give only minimum attention to this aspect will soon suffer the consequences.

Interestingly, engaging an organization's front-line staff to deliver on this customer strategy has never been more difficult to implement, especially during periods when sales or participation numbers decline.

Putting power, resources, and trust in the hands of front-line personnel allows managers to deal with other situations that arise on a daily basis, to address customer problems, to anticipate unarticulated needs, and to drive customer-facing innovation. However, there is no single philosophy that holds all of the answers for every agency. The best advice is to combine effective best practices from diverse organizations to succeed in building a front line-focused organization. Nurturing leadership to make real-time judgment calls is a proven best practice. Here’s a five-step process for achieving this extra edge for success:

Step 1: Make communication easy.

To ensure that front-line personnel are heard, create procedures that allow their voices to reach the top management, meaning you. Paradoxically, empowering personnel starts with top management, which allows upward communication. Management needs to listen closely to what employees are saying so they can succeed in aligning the culture, training, work processes, and reward systems.

Step 2: Empower front-line people.

Create a culture that allows employees to think on their own. While entry-level employees need to understand the customer strategy, they also need simple problem-solving frameworks that are used throughout the organization to promote cross-hierarchical dialogue. Personnel should be allowed to deviate from the book in order to achieve the best possible outcome. Such flexibility empowers employees to fix minor issues before they become more of a headache. It also helps employees develop a deeper connection to the success of the organization.

Step 3: Embrace trial and error.

Nothing works better than this time-tested philosophy. Allow personnel some latitude in trying different approaches to solving common problems. Giving them resources to experiment may create more efficient ways in doing business.

Step 4: Create a barrier-free work environment.

Nearly every organization has embedded assumptions about roles and power. To give employees an extra edge, allow them to expeditiously serve customers and not have to wait for senior staff members to make decisions. For example, dealing with customer complaints sometimes includes filling out numerous forms and waiting for a top-down response. Bypassing that barrier allows simple complaints to be dealt with in a more efficient way, improving a user’s experience.

Step 5: Invest in training for everyone.

Sometimes the amount of money set aside for management training and workshops is quite high while funding for training of the front-line personnel is spread very thin. The investment has to be made. Additionally, many organizations tend to hire front-line personnel without carefully considering if the employee possesses the right attitude and values to represent the brand. Applicants are required to possess certain characteristics—such as being drug-free—but perhaps managers should pay more attention as to why this employee wants the job, or if he or she is a good fit in the company culture.  An example that highlights the importance of every employee comes from Zappos.com. According to its hiring culture, a prospective employee may be interviewed by as many as 10 to 15 people for a $13-per-hour call-center job. Even after the prospective employee is offered a job, he or she is required to sit through several weeks of training, including listening to recordings of real customer interactions, before ever working a full day.

Delivering a great customer experience can be achieved when focus is placed on developing front-line personnel. And to really beat the competition and turn these employees into your best customer-retention strategy, you need to invest in them.

Tatiana Chalkiidou , Ph.D., is a parks and recreation professional with experience in recreation and sport management. She has taught leisure management courses, presented various workshops and education sessions at national, state, and local conferences, and has collaborated with various funding agencies in park-related projects. She continues to provide services through consulting. Reach her at tatchalk@gmail.com or on twitter at @TatChalkidou.

Michael Bradley , Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Recreation and Park Administration at EasternKentuckyUniversity. Reach him at michael.bradley@eku.edu or on twitter at @RecKnowledge.

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