Trends

We asked 500 frontline managers about the state of their operations. Here’s what we learned. 

Posted on: November 1, 2023Updated on: January 24, 2024By: Richia McCutcheon

If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that “business as usual” no longer exists. But particularly in frontline industries like retail and hospitality, the operational pressures threatening to disrupt productivity, consistency and even revenue keep piling up. 

To learn more about the state of operations in frontline industries, we went right to the source. We polled 500 U.S. frontline managers in retail, hospitality and foodservice about the biggest operational challenges they’re currently facing, their projections for 2024 and much more. 

Here’s what we learned:

Frontline managers face an array of operational issues, but outdated customer tech and theft top the list 

When asked about the biggest operational issues they’re trying to solve, 66% of frontline managers ranked updating point-of-sale (POS)/operating systems at the top of the list (and that number jumped to 70% for hospitality managers). Theft and violence were also top of mind, as well as staffing issues (no surprise there, considering our last poll uncovered a huge burden on frontline managers when it comes to seasonal hiring): 

  • 66% of managers said updating point of sale and operating systems is one of the biggest operational issues they’re trying to solve
  • 64% of managers said that addressing volatile issues like theft and violence is still top-of-mind
  • 63% of managers said hiring more workers and staff was also among the most pressing  operational challenges

These issues threaten to impact the all-important customer experience (especially as demand and expectations grow)

With so many operational issues at play, it’s no surprise that over half of frontline managers are concerned about how these challenges will impact the customer and guest experience. Happening in tandem are heightened customer and guest expectations that continue to rise and evolve post-pandemic. Respondents said customers have expressed the need for more well-versed and confident associates, quicker checkout options and more secure and safe environments:

  • 56% of frontline managers are concerned they and their team are unable to meet customers’ expectations
  • 64% of frontline managers say their customers have expressed the need for more informed and knowledgeable store associates. Other needs include:
    • Quicker options for check-out, returns and payment (60%)
    • More secure or safer environment (57%)
    • More personalized shopping/hospitality experiences (52%)
    • More transparency about issues such as inventory, supply chain, pricing, order fulfillment, etc. (50%)

Things are getting worse, but the long-term outlook is better

Managers believe the operational challenges facing their staff have gotten worse in the last year, and concerns around safety and security continue to grow. And, nearly half of managers polled expect these issues to continue to get worse in the coming year. However, managers’ long-term outlooks are more positive, with over 80% of respondents confident that the business they manage will be around in the next few years: 

  • 61% of frontline managers believe working in customer service has grown more difficult for them and their staff over the past year
  • 71% of frontline managers are more concerned with the security or personal safety of their workers and customers today
  • 48% of frontline managers expect operational issues to get worse in 2024
  • 81% of frontline managers believe their business will still be around in 5 years

Managers are taking active steps to support a better brand and customer experience… 

Perhaps part of the reason for the long-term optimism is the strong initiative managers have taken to address these operational challenges head-on. From increasing training to automating store functions and accessibility improvements, managers are actively taking steps to improve the customer experience—and the employee experience: 

  • 73% of frontline managers are providing more training to workers to support a better brand experience. Other initiatives include:
    • Implementing a dress code (65%)
    • Increasing how often workers interact with customers (59%)
    • Increasing in-store location security and safety measures (55%)
    • Creating new platforms/channels for customers to provide feedback (51%)
    • Changing in-store/location music (46%)
  • 57% of frontline managers are planning to automate employee training in the next year. Other functions they plan to automate include:
    • Ordering/return/check-out processes (60%)
    • Customer loyalty functions (57%)
    • Inventory processes (56%)
    • Scheduling (48%)
  • 62% of frontline managers are providing more training around working with customers and employees with disabilities. Other steps managers have taken to make their locations more accessible include:
    • Adjusting floor plans, entrances, restrooms and parking (64%)
    • Implementing assistive technology (58%)
    • Increasing efforts for inclusive hiring (55%)
    • Shared employee resources groups (43%)

…But staff are wary

As frontline managers explore more and more opportunities to improve and streamline operations, frontline workers are voicing concerns—particularly when it comes to automation, lack of training opportunities, communication and transparency with senior leadership: 

  • 55% of frontline managers called out a lack of communication with senior leadership as their staff’s biggest concern when it comes to operational improvements. Other concerns include:
    • Increased automation and technological advancement (60%)
    • Ongoing supply chain instability (55%)
    • Changes in company culture and brand (52%)
    • Lack of training opportunities and resources (51%)
    • Lack of safety precautions (43%)

To improve the customer and employee experience, managers are also embracing AI—but there are concerns to address

There’s no question that managers see the value in emerging technologies like AI when it comes to improving the customer and employee experience—a whopping 72% of managers are comfortable introducing AI to their staff. But, there are concerns. Role confusion or replacement, compliance issues and a lack of understanding are some of the barriers managers feel  will need to be addressed as AI becomes more integrated into the frontline worker experience:  

  • 72% of frontline managers are comfortable introducing new technologies like AI to their staff
  • 64% of frontline managers say they aren’t scared of using AI
  • 68% of frontline managers believe AI can improve the customer/guest experience
  • 63% of frontline managers are concerned that AI could create new compliance standards to follow. Other concerns managers have around AI include:
    • It could speed up or slow down operations (62%)
    • It could create confusion around job roles and responsibilities (60%)
    • It could take away jobs (56%)
    • It could be biased (54%)
    • It could decrease job satisfaction (46%)
  • 64% of frontline managers said the biggest barrier to introducing AI to their staff is a lack of understanding of what it is/can do. Other barriers include:
    • Unknown return on investment (62%)
    • Lack of time/resources (56%)
    • Privacy concerns (54%)
    • Lack of motivation to learn a new technology (52%)

As managers navigate these operational challenges and emerging technologies, they are looking to senior leadership for buy-in—and empowerment

Frontline managers are taking an active role in overcoming the challenges facing their locations, but they are looking to senior leadership to provide the tools, training and career advancement they need to feel empowered. Communication  again is key here; over half of managers polled said they have communicated directly with their CEO, and 60% said their senior leadership listens to and implements their ideas and recommendations:  

  • 77% of frontline managers said their senior leadership empowers them in their role through training and learning opportunities. Other ways senior leadership empowers managers include:
    • Providing opportunities for career advancement and growth (69%)
    • Routine and open communication with senior leadership (65%)
    • Implementing managers’ ideas or recommendations (60%)
    • Networking and mentorship programs (56%)
  • 54% of frontline managers said they have communicated directly with their CEO
  • 71% of frontline managers feel supported by senior leadership when trying to make business improvements

What can we learn from these findings? Managers are playing an active role in driving the operational consistency and efficiency frontline organizations desperately need. But, there are barriers to success that need to be addressed and faced. Namely, a strong need for training and clear communication around the initiatives, improvements and emerging technologies that managers are adopting to stay agile and productive in a volatile, rapidly changing world. 

Richia McCutcheon

As Senior Brand Marketing Manager, Richia McCutcheon spends her time sharing Axonify's story in the market and learning about what frontlines need to thrive.