The problem of the first line

Short description

Service companies often struggle with front-line staff who are prepared to deal with typical situations but lack the ability to handle non-standard problems. The problem is often caused by the volume of enquiries, with only the most vocal customers reaching the second and third lines. To combat the problem, one solution is to use a script of strict rules, while the alternative is management through values. The latter approach is popular with small, turquoise companies, with values such as “Know your client, learn to hear him” used to train staff to think for themselves. The solution requires more resources but produces experts instead of biorobots.

The problem of the first line

I often observe how the first line of service (personal manager, account, technical support) is ready to help with plus or minus typical situations, but goes into a deep stupor and reacts inadequately in case of serious problems or non-standard situations. Moreover, absolutely all service companies, regardless of size, suffer from it. In the article: a case study, several accumulated observations and our methods of combating the problem.

Preamble for the completeness of the picture:

The button is a federal accounting service of a new model. A distinctive feature is the automation of many processes and the use of machine learning. In general, closer to IT than to accounting. To work faster with bank statements and prepare payments, automatic data exchange is set up with many banks.

Case 1: “Blackmail or how to fix a bank”

So, in January 2023, the ENP (single tax payment) was introduced. Many scenarios had to be rewritten, both by us and by the banks.

Quite quickly (in the same January) we find out that one of the banks incorrectly takes into account the tax payment dates for the EPP, due to which the salary project does not skip salary payments without paying personal income tax.

We have about 100 joint clients with this bank. We are in a hopeless situation:

  • Paying salary without a ZP-project – the client will get big commissions.

  • Reconfiguring all scenarios under one bank and explaining to clients why everyone can pay personal income tax until the 28th, but they must pay until the 23rd, otherwise it will not be possible to pay the salary is also not an option.

  • Customers could be asked to switch banks. But it is somehow not very partner- and client-oriented.

We decided to deal with the problem together with the bank. They wrote to technical support, to the bank’s chat, to our manager of the bank’s referral program, and to many others.

The result is one: technical support, without delving too much into the essence of the problem, assures that everything is working normally and there should be no failures. It’s the same in the bank’s chat. The manager goes to consult and after a couple of days returns with a bureaucratic answer of 2,000 characters, which can be shortened to “everything is working normally and there should be no failures” without losing the meaning.

They decided to take drastic measures. They wrote (but did not publish) a devastating article, and went with the draft directly to the bank’s press service, hoping to draw attention to the problem. And, surprisingly, after several meetings with the bank’s PR and technical specialists, it was possible to fix the bug on the bank’s side.


So why weren’t we heard right away?

The fact is that signals from customers are often not proportional to the criticality of the situation itself.

The front line of any service faces hundreds of calls every day. One client will arrange a tragedy of Shakespearean scale due to mistakenly debited 12 rubles. And the other will politely ask to do everything possible so that the deal for 12 million does not fail because of him.

Usually, only requests from the loudest customers reach the second and third lines (head of department, manager or quality department). And there such requests are deployed with the wording: “And why are you showing me this? Can’t you work out yourself?”.

And really critical issues have to be solved bypassing the first line, because there they get stuck like a fly in amber. The problem is to calibrate the first line correctly.

It is also complicated by the fact that the first line often does not have the full context of the customer. And even more often, he does not want to own it.

In most companies, like ours, the CRM system contains comprehensive data about each customer in order to be as useful as possible.

But if you are bombarded with hundreds of typical messages and calls per day, you gradually stop delving deeply and checking with the CRM at every contact with the client, and you may not take something into account.

In general, this is justified, because 99% of appeals are typical and do not require serious research. And spending a lot of time on each request to make sure that everything is standard there is simply an irrational use of the resource and an increase in costs, and therefore prices for customers.

There are several approaches to solving the problem

1. Creation of strict rules and criteria

This option is popular with large companies, as well as with companies with a vertical management structure (red and orange in concept Frederick Laloux).

The point is to develop strict criteria that will allow the manager to understand what to do with a particular client/partner issue.

One of the disadvantages of the approach is that no megabrain can develop a script for all occasions. No matter what anyone says, life is always more complicated than our wildest assumptions. The case that I cited at the beginning also speaks of this.

Another disadvantage: by urging managers to work according to a script, you train them to “think less, do more.” That is why, faced with something even slightly out of the ordinary, they enter a stupor and are unable to quickly activate thinking activity.

Another disadvantage: scripts will need to be constantly updated. Life does not stand still, and therefore it will be necessary to lay down a resource not only for the development of the script, but also for its up-to-date maintenance.

2. Management through values

The reverse approach is management through values. Popular with small and/or turquoise companies. By the way, it is also closer to us.

In general, this is a large and interesting topic that involves the restructuring of all processes, from the selection of employees to decision-making in the company. Here I will write only how it will help with solving the problem of the first line.

  • We introduce the right values. For example: “Know your client, learn to hear him.” We don’t prescribe rules, but teach you to think with your head and separate the flies from the meatballs.

  • We remind employees that they are not a cog in the system. Their work affects the company’s reputation and customer retention. And therefore, on the company’s profit and their salary.

  • It is possible to divide the customer base between first-line specialists. It turns out that each manager will get to know and understand his customers better.

  • We increase the competencies of employees who interact with clients/partners. We hold regular meetings with customer analysis: we listen to calls, analyze chats. More experienced employees train less experienced employees.

  • We teach customer orientation. So, for example, our manager can put himself in the position of the client and go to touch the accountant or lawyer so that the document is ready sooner. And maybe give chocolate as a gift, depending on the manager 🙂

If done correctly, such a system will perform better than any fancy script. But there is also a downside: with a high staff turnover, knowledge and values ​​can be quickly lost.

And this approach is more complicated than the first: it affects almost all processes in the company and requires much more resources. But how cool it is later to see around you specialists who think, and not biorobots with a script.

Well, one way or another, we managed to catch a signal from the front line that the client/partner is in pain. What’s next?

Large companies have numerous quality departments to solve complex situations. Even we had special ones at one time quality experts. They ran from the accountant to the payer, finding out where the error occurred and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

They worked quickly, they were able to remove negativity from customers in a cool way. Only they burned out as quickly as they worked. Which is not surprising when you are faced with negativity every day.

And often problems arise at the intersection of units. The ping-pong of responsibility begins and such a crazy translation of arrows that no driver has ever seen.

To remedy this, we simply decided to assemble a random (not really) working group to solve problems and difficult situations. The working group includes:

  • the one who caught the “pain” signal from the client

  • everyone who is in the context of this client (his accountant, account manager, lawyer, etc.)

  • everyone who is looking into the problem itself and is ready to help figure it out

  • department heads are often connected (we have it technologists).

When one of the managers catches a signal about a customer’s pain, he writes in a special work chat, which is read by most employees, including technologists and CEOs. The experiment, like the chat, was called “Stop tap”.

The peculiarity is that there is an iron-clad agreement with all employees: the stop-crane tasks are considered a priority

That is, you need to put your routine aside, delve into the problem and solve it as soon as possible. Or, at least, contribute: share the context, tell everything you know about the problem and its causes.

The experiment turned out to be successful and has long since become a common practice. Customers receive decisions as quickly as possible. And the employees do not have time to get tired of the negativity, since the work groups have an unchanged composition. Instead, they manage to exchange useful experience while solving the problem.

And how do you deal with the problem of the first line?

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