Talent [R]evolution

Agile beyond the office: Creating Agile teams on the frontline

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Despite its roots in software, the tried-and-tested Agile methodology has benefits across sectors and organisations. Although now there is certainly widespread adoption beyond IT, there is still very much the perception that Agile is an internal practice; that is, not enacted by customer-facing workers. However, companies are beginning to see the value of Agile on the frontline. This is because Agile is, by nature, about speed – and in today’s markets, time is of the essence. Customers expect nothing short of seamless, swift interactions with a company.

This is especially the case as digitization becomes of increasing urgency. Digitization is essential to making services quicker and more convenient, yet paradoxically, it’s the human element that will make digitization successful. Frontline employees remain the most crucial interface between the customer and the company and are essential to facilitating customer use of digital channels (take human intervention in chatbot exchanges, for instance).

Moreover, the approach doesn’t only have benefits for the customer. Agile makes frontline teams more resilient in difficult times and faster to seize opportunities. After all, the reality is that the majority of the workforce isn’t in project cells or in the boardroom, it’s in branches and customer service centres. Therefore, for a business to be truly Agile, the philosophy needs to permeate every level of the organisation. Not only will it benefit the company, but it will also enhance employees’ skills too.

Take the pandemic as an example; as remote cooperation became of greater importance, it was employees that were used to self-authorization and serving clients on different channels that adapted better to working from home. One big-brand bank reported that even in a pandemic context, Agile transformation in on the frontline had doubled sales and tripled high-value customer interactions. 

But what constitutes an Agile team on the frontline? How can businesses leverage practices that have long been implemented internally and bring the benefits to the customer? Here, we look closer.

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Allow autonomy and initiative

As those versed in Agile know, one of the key features is autonomy – and granting autonomy is essential to facilitating Agile teams on the frontline. Giving frontline staff the power to make judgements, be entrepreneurial in their work, experiment and share ideas make it much more likely that strategic decisions taken from the top will resonate with the frontline. With the autonomy to make their own judgements, they have a more tangible relationship with how their actions impact business agility. 

To illustrate: in Agile teams, the average frontline team member is included in communications about organisational strategy and goals. Communication is more horizontal and inclusive, fostering dialogue between the management and the frontline. Both parties understand how sales functions drive the strategic agenda, under the principle that empowered employees make meaningful connections with customers.

This isn’t to say that executives should neglect the cultural challenges that arise with Agile transformation. Just because workers are more autonomous, doesn’t mean ownership and responsibility at management level should be neglected; employees can only get behind leaders that prioritise transparency and make emotional connections. It’s especially important with sales teams, where employees may have been raised as grunts. In an environment where workers can experiment and even fail in order to learn and grow, companies will see concrete improvements.

Upskill and empower

Skill diversification is a side-effect of greater autonomy; when employees are more empowered to make their own decisions, their roles become more diverse. This has knock-on benefits for the customer journey. As their sales representative is more autonomous, the sales funnel is less fragmented with fewer handovers. Take telecommunications as an example: when one sales agent can handle inquiries regarding mobile, broadband, and landline, the interaction is inevitably smoother. 

The same goes for working across contexts and touchpoints. By training employees to interact face-to-face, on the phone, via video chat, or carry out chatbot interventions, the customer service experience is more personalised. Equally, diversifying roles reduces and simplifies job profiles, making employees more flexible and efficient. Just look at the workforces that maintained remote team productivity during the COVID lockdowns and those that didn’t.

However, leaders shouldn’t be under the impression that upskilling and cross-skilling happens by magic. Management has the responsibility to support the adaptation to multidisciplinary roles and this takes time, effort, and investment. Often, the best value for money will come from upskilling employees who are likely to stay with the company longer.

Streamlining teams for better service

The notion of creating multidisciplinary workforces can occasionally lead to anxiety about cutbacks. This is best illustrated by banking; many rural communities may fear branch closures in favour of digital solutions. However, truly Agile companies will recognise the value of these touchpoints. What needs streamlining is not the bricks-and-mortar branch, but rather the team within.

This is part and parcel of upskilling and empowerment. As traffic in branches falls due to digital services – and equally, digital processes reduce the number of managerial tasks – smaller Agile teams are likely to make more sense. Thus, the solution isn’t necessarily to close branches but scale back bureaucracy. This might mean removing a layer of management and granting customer-facing staff more autonomy.

For instance, people are now more likely to visit a bank branch for advice rather than to perform transactions. Therefore, these smaller, more streamlined teams also tend to have more seniority. When transitioning to a more autonomous team of sales advisers rather than mere bank clerks, customer satisfaction rises while opportunities for peer-to-peer coaching increases.  

To illustrate, one European bank chose to eliminate two layers of management: regional directors and store managers. Instead, the lower-level managerial staff became responsible for clusters of three to six locations. This not only cut costs but also created a multidisciplinary team that could rotate across branches. This approach particularly benefited rural locations, where they could offer the sophisticated client services they had previously lacked.   

Subsequently, the savings were reallocated to train a greater number of highly-qualified customer-facing staff, enhancing customer satisfaction overall. This is because the majority of the time, people visit bank branches for consultations – and now, this company was delivering on that expectation effectively.

Become agile and fast like a start-up

Nurture ambition and visualise targets

Fostering more autonomous and senior teams will create greater consciousness around their roles and impact on the organisation. These empowered staff will have their own ambitions and encouraging this is key to nurturing an Agile mindset. Moving to a bottom-up approach to target-setting could deliver surprising results, as teams set their own goals and define their own success metrics. 

One company found that this role reversal led to increased employee entrepreneurship and ownership, along with increased sales. Salespeople identified their own quarterly targets and took accountability for meeting them with data and benchmarking. Employees were furnished not only with their own performance data but that of others, so they could assess the maximum sales potential in their department. 

Visualising performance is a key tool to nurturing this culture. Agile tools like sprint planning and portfolio walls make development and achievement more tangible, meanwhile, Agile ceremonies like day-starts and performance dialogues keep teams motivated. In a customer-facing environment, these meetings are often shorter than they would be in the head, as time is of the essence when it comes to serving customers.

The physical space can also play a part in encouraging new behaviours. For instance, a British bank has removed barriers between the customer and the sales agent by doing away with counters. Instead, customers and clerks can meet more naturally, facilitating smoother, more hands-on journeys to the right adviser or specialist.

Implement technologies to complement the mindset

Successful Agile organisations understand that the methodology has to extend to all aspects of business operations. A fast, seamless digital experience shouldn’t only be available to customers – it should be available to employees as well. By simplifying the selling environment, teams become Agile teams. A straightforward example is reducing the number of screens a sales representative has to interact with or selecting integrated scheduling, meeting and collaborating tools. 

Equally, the availability of data is important. By democratising access to key metrics, employees are more empowered to set their own targets. Customer traffic data can also be especially valuable when frontline workers are organising their own time. By being able to predict demand, employees can estimate when time is best spent on the shopfloor, manning the phones, or working on back-office tasks. This, naturally, improves the customer experience too.

Case Study: Agile teams in action

A major telecommunications brand in the UK was struggling with very low resolution rates and customer satisfaction. Customer journeys were often fragmented, with agents passing inquiries to multiple departments in a single phone call. The company recognised that reappraising their first point of contact was critical to addressing the issue. To achieve this, they incorporated various aspects of the Agile methodology. 

They began by providing sales agents with the tools to forge an emotional connection with the customer. This was facilitated by collaborative cells of customer services agents and specialists that could handle complex requests more efficiently. Calls are taken by a customer service agent, then if they can’t resolve the request, it’s handled by a specialist. Meanwhile, the customer service agent stays on the call; subsequently, they learn how to manage the request so they can deal with it in the future.

To further solidify this more intimate relationship between customer and sales agent, the company also allocated a fixed group of customers to a set of agents across teams. This fostered a greater sense of ownership, as in most customer care scenarios, an agent that transfers a customer may not come into contact with them again. With this new approach, customers can return to the original agent if they can’t resolve the issue, ensuring they don’t have to repeat themselves, which is a common source of frustration.

Concurrently, the company implemented digital tools to automate standard tasks to free up agents’ time. This gave them more time to access the peer-to-peer coaching mentioned above. Equally, there were weekly meetings scheduled to facilitate upskilling and highlight best practice. The results were remarkable: first-call resolution went up by 14%, while net promoter score went up by 9%. Meanwhile, the number of times a customer was transferred went down by a remarkable 70%. It also had a substantial effect on job satisfaction; employee churn went down by 40%.

Agile at every level

The Agile framework has certainly earned its stripes as one of the most effective ways to do business in the modern world. With this approach, companies can benefit from collaboration, rapid reactions, and ownership, which can transform an organisation at every level. Over the past decade, big players have consistently applied Agile to functions with multiple variables and high uncertainty, such as project management and product development. 

Considering the volatile, unpredictable nature of customer relations, it’s a prime candidate for Agile. However, surprisingly few companies have implemented the methodology on their frontline. This is largely because Agile is assumed to be a headquarters-oriented practice. The received wisdom is that rigid control is the best approach, with companies implementing purely data-driven approaches like lean and Six Sigma to monitor and improve performance.

However, this neglects the crucially human element of customer relations, which is what produces the variability. In these situations, customer-facing staff need to be empowered to act to resolve requests – and this is why Agile is so valuable. It enables agents to adapt to change customer preferences and be more customer-centric.  

As we have described here, Agile teams can revolutionise customer care and unlock the value of employees. These teams make up a vast majority of the company’s workforce, and often, are an untapped resource. By empowering agents, granting them autonomy, allowing creativity, and facilitating opportunities for upskilling, businesses will certainly see the benefits. With sustained investment in culture change, businesses can get ahead of the curve in Agile customer relations.

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Seasoned marketing professional with 13 years of international experience working in hospitality, financial, technology, retail industries and consumer brands.

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