How emerging technologies empower your frontline to perform
Having highly engaged customers can be a big win for your brand. But what about when they’re more informed about your products and services than your frontline employees?
It’s a challenge Carl Boutet, retail strategist and author of The Great Acceleration: the Race to Retail Resilience, knows well. Retailers have told him time and again that “the frontline especially, but even [workers] along the whole value chain, felt at a disadvantage in facing the customer. The customer came in better equipped than the people that were serving them.”
That challenge has only worsened since the start of the pandemic with rising labor shortages adding pressure to an overextended frontline. As they rush to fill vacant positions, companies risk losing business if they can’t get workers on the floor fast enough. The result? New hires are facing customers without the onboarding, training or resources they need to do their jobs well.
Given today’s unique context, how can companies fix the knowledge gap between their frontline and today’s highly informed customers? Last month at AxoniCom LIVE 2021, Carl sat down with Stacey Shulman to find out how tech can help. Stacey is Vice President of IoT and GM of Health, Life Sciences and Emerging Technologies at Intel. She says the pandemic accelerated the need for new systems and strategies—and organizations need to continue adapting to better support their frontline.
Keep reading for the top three takeaways from Carl and Stacey’s conversation.
Automation makes frontline work more engaging and mitigates labor shortages
In April 2021, more U.S. workers quit their jobs in a single month than ever before. And by the end of August, the Great Resignation had broken yet another record. “There isn’t an industry right now that’s flush with people,” Stacey says. “Everyone’s having an issue and we saw this coming years ago. We’ve been talking about the shortage of fast food workers, workers in retail… What we didn’t anticipate was how much Covid was going to make that worse.”
In the past, conversations around artificial intelligence (AI) and automation on the frontlines were sensitive to taking jobs from people. But “now we’re in a time where if you want to stay growing and thriving, you’re really going to have to start embracing more automation and you’re really going to have to start prioritizing where you put people in jobs because there aren’t enough people to do all the jobs,” Stacey says.
Looking to the future, she has high hopes for autonomous grab-and-go stores, but implementing and maintaining the systems needed to operate them isn’t easy. “Can it be a material part of any organization in the next five years? I would be delightfully surprised if it was… The way to baby-step into that discussion is through more self-checkout and getting people more comfortable with that.”
Rather than automation eliminating jobs, Stacey says AI-powered systems can actually help attract and retain the right talent—and prevent future labor shortages—by removing repetitive, menial tasks from frontline roles. “To keep people engaged in doing things that are, I’ll say, more high-value, let’s remove all of the work that can be automated from their jobs, so they can focus on things that are more rewarding and high value.”
The pandemic removed obstacles to frontline success—and there’s no going back
Covid-19 caused a lot of turmoil on the frontlines, but one positive side effect is that companies found new efficiencies overnight. “In every industry, whether it’s healthcare or retail, we had to react and get scrappy in the moment. We removed all these artificial rules and regulations that we had… because [we] were unlocking productivity.”
Organizations loosened restrictions around personal devices for frontline workers, introducing bring your own device (BYOD) policies. And they gave customers more flexible purchasing options, including a better eCommerce experience and curbside pickup options. By finding more efficient ways of doing things, companies enabled employees to do their best work.
“Then the question comes in,” Stacey says. “In a post-Covid world, are we going to go back to those things that were in the way that we decided had to be moved? Are we going to go back to telling employees on the sales floor that they can’t be trusted with their device in helping customers?”
As companies plan their post-pandemic future, it’s time to reevaluate and refine business-as-usual. “Some of those regulations were in place for a reason… But I do think that we should reassess that… We should redefine: were those really value-add or not?”
A successful frontline is an information-empowered frontline
Considering the frontline’s biggest challenges right now, including higher-than-ever quit rates and a rising burnout epidemic, something needs to change for companies to attract and retain the right talent. During the Great Resignation, employees are no longer willing to tolerate the stress, exhaustion or inflexibility of traditional frontline jobs.
So what does a better frontline experience look like? Stacey says it starts with building a supportive, trusting environment where employees are tech-enabled. “And it’s not because the tech is important, it’s because the information is important. So I’ll say an information-empowered frontline that feels safe. Let’s start there… Because they need to feel safe and they want to be able to provide the right level of service.”
In the past, Stacey says, frontline workers were “treated as temporary employees. And that mode has to change. It has to be more career-oriented. It has to be more enabled. They have to have the right tools to do their job. They have to be entrusted to use those tools and trained properly to use those tools.”
It’s no secret that frontline onboarding, training and communication often take a backseat, especially where turnover is high. Frontline organizations can use microlearning, reinforcement and on-demand content to give people training and support in the flow of work. And they can improve two-way communication between the frontline and HQ, so employees always have access to up-to-date information. Ultimately, by investing in tech that empowers frontline growth, success and happiness, organizations give their people a reason to stay.