A peek inside the world of two leaders supporting their frontlines to thrive through disruption

When you look up the word “disruption” in the dictionary, the business definition given is centered around the radical change in an industry or business strategy that’s precipitated by the introduction of a new product or service. 

It’s the Uber definition, not the COVID one. 

Still, the underlying premise remains sound. Disruption necessitates change. Not small change, radical change. And organizations with large frontline workforces to support have been in the eye of the storm for months which means they’ve learned a thing or two about how to navigate gracefully. 

During AxoniCom LIVE, we talked with Lou Tedrick, VP of Learning and Development at Verizon, and Senchal Murphy, Senior Director of Training & Onboarding, at The Kroger Co., about the smart things their organizations are doing to keep their frontline people safe, happy and performing through these times where the stakes are high and the change just keeps coming. The discussion surfaced some common themes.

Agility has never been more important

While COVID forced greater society into a slowed-down existence, it absolutely dialed the need for speed way up on the frontlines of business. For an organization like Verizon, that initially had to shut down their retail locations, pivoting quickly in response to the change meant getting really innovative with reskilling. 

“We started to see (the way to support) our customers who were no longer able to go to stores was through calls or through chat and telesales,” says Tedrick. “We also had this supply of retail reps who wanted desperately to be serving our customers and weren’t able to go into their environments to do so. So we quickly looked at the skills they had. What’s the knowledge they have and how can we transition them to become a call center customer service rep? And we were able to do that in days.” 

Kroger had the opposite problem to Verizon: their stores stayed open and business grew significantly overnight as people flocked to stock up on food and supplies. As a result, they found themselves hiring and training new associates faster than ever before. 

“In a perfect world we would do a needs analysis, do a lot of discovery, lean into the design of programs and build out a really nice, exciting, role-based training program,” says Murphy. “We didn’t have time for that. We had to think about how to hire quickly and then how do we quickly onboard and get our teams up to speed.”

Of course, “up to speed” takes on a whole new meaning at the start of a pandemic when customers are panic buying. Training was understandably focused around safety, of stores, associates and customers. And that meant getting associates to focus on very specific tasks and roles. 

“We had to reprioritize what really mattered for us,” says Murphy. “But that was our entire community coming together to hire differently, to onboard differently, to develop curriculum that would have taken us months. And we did it in a matter of days.” 

Communication is critical

Of course, it’s not enough to get your frontline up to speed quickly, you also have to make sure they have a consistent flow of information they need to keep adapting and behaving consistently, even when they’re distributed across so many locations. This is where communication comes in.

“I would say that the communication loop was so critically important and the feedback and improvement loop was even more important,” says Murphy. “We heard it—whether it was from our store leaders, our district managers or our operators in the field—and then within hours sometimes, or days, improvements were starting to be made and cascading across the company.”

Verizon also relied heavily on communication through the disruption. The company’s CEO, Hans Vestberg, started sharing a state of the nation with employees at noon EST every day in the early days of COVID, in order to keep the lines of communication open. And it’s been very effective in making employees feel connected and cared for.

“He co-leads that with our senior leadership team. And Christine Pambianchi, our CHRO, regularly talks to our employees about the things that are happening in real time,” says Tedrick. “And that’s just been huge for our employees to feel like they matter…so they’re very engaged in how our business is running and operating.”  

Watch Lou and Senchal’s full session on overcoming disruption on demand now.

Your frontline is a fountain of ideas (if you ask them)

If you want to truly know what’s going on with your business, the really juicy insights come from the people who are up close and personal with your customers every day. Your frontline workers are the people who can tell you what’s working, and what isn’t, so it makes a lot of sense to pulse check with them regularly. 

“Most of the best things that we do come from our frontline. They come from our associates who work day to day with the product, with the customer. They’re in it,” says Murphy. “ I’m proud to be a part of a company that listens to that voice. So many of the things that we scale, they came from somebody working directly on the frontline, who was empowered to take a chance and make a decision to really lean into something.” 

Verizon also prides itself on being an organization where employees are regularly asked to give feedback, which is then taken into account when driving larger activities and strategies. 

“We pulse our employees regularly for feedback,” says Tedrick. “We do focus groups with employees regularly to get their input into our products, services and policies. So, it’s an organization where you have an opportunity to really be part of, not just the job that you do, but how the organization runs and operates.” 

Training on the frontlines has changed for good

There’s nothing quite like a pandemic to quickly expose opportunities to change the way things have always been done. And training is no exception. While Verizon was fortunate to have new innovations and technologies already in place that they could tap into to train their frontline people in the areas they needed to, they also learned some new lessons in agility.

“We’re often asked to train people on everything,” says Tedrick. “And we learned that you can train them on just what they need and they can go out and do a bang-up job.” 

Kroger is also turning the lessons the pandemic has taught them into an opportunity to be a first-class training and learning organization. 

“Visual-type training via videos, micro-based learning…we were starting to step into it, now we’re going to go full-fledged into it,” says Murphy. “That’s how someone learns, a little bit over time with repetition. Many of those different things are our key driving learnings. And we’ve got so many different levels of associates that need different things, so we’re still learning what we need to do… but it’s really meeting our associates where they need to be met.”

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