Promote top performers or keep them on the front line?

It is a curious anomaly of the working world that the better someone is at dealing with customers, the more rapidly they are moved away from those customers into line management.

The classic example is the call centre, where top performing agents are swiftly moved from answering calls to managing teams, and replaced with new, usually less capable, recruits. Anyone who has ever dealt with a call centre or with anyone involved in customer service will know the outcome of this policy: frequent frustration and dissatisfaction for the customer, and often a consequent loss of revenue for the company.

The practice of moving top performing customer service staff away from customers has become so prevalent that it is rarely questioned, and yet it can be enormously damaging not only to the company, but also to the individuals involved. “Some excellent frontline staff can find the additional responsibility of managing people stressful and de-motivating,” says Charles Fraser, head of assessment and development at executive recruitment practice Ashley Hoyle. “Promotion is not always the next positive step for able customer-facing staff.”

As the recession continues to bite, and companies strive ever harder to retain top staff and to keep customers loyal, this issue is rising up the boardroom agenda. How can companies keep their best staff motivated and their customers satisfied? Is it one or the other, or is there a solution that achieves both objectives?

Breaking with tradition

The notion that top customer service providers should be moved away from customers is so firmly entrenched in many organisations that it is rarely questioned. Jo Ouston, director of management consultants Jo Ouston & Co, even argues that doing anything else could be damaging. “If you turn the customer relationship example on its head by making customer relationship management roles the highest paid and devaluing the management role you may end up with an ineffective and dysfunctional operation which is unable to deliver good service, regardless of the quality of the relationships with customers. Then the organisation loses the customers anyway.”

Others argue that this focus on talented people is a distraction, and feel that good customer service is a function of effective technology. “The promotion of good customer facing staff needn’t mean a drop in service,” says David Frenkel, chief executive of business process guidance specialist Panviva. “You simply need to capture good business process and provide real-time call guidance and information navigation system to staff.”

However, any company that genuinely cares about customer service knows that it starts and ends with the skills and motivation of the people providing that customer service. The role of HR is to maximise the skills and motivation of those people, not to replace them with software.

Different sectors

This idea of keeping top performers in the front line is not new. It already happens in the Civil Service and in the legal profession, as Ouston points out. “In the Civil Service all senior trainees start in a general training scheme and are then divided into technical, scientific or management streams for the long term without loss of seniority.

“In the law the same situation arises. Some lawyers are good at management and are happy to take on management responsibilities, but highly specialised lawyers may be more valuable to the firm doing professional work and may not be suited to management.”

For some, this approach is only relevant to certain sectors. Carolina Rodriguez, chief executive of management consultants Quality Management Solutions, says: “Industries where you have tangible products might do better with their top people in areas such as management, marketing or product development.

“But companies that offer services such as consulting, investment banking, insurance services and so on should keep their top employees on the front line to retain existing customers and maintain customer satisfaction.” For his part, James Callander, managing director of recruitment consultancy FreshMinds Talent, believes this strategy is only suitable for business-to-business companies.

“In business-to-business fields such as law or consultancy the top people in the company are essentially sales people, looking after their customers,” he says. “It is a knowledge business and you want to put the people with the best knowledge in front of your clients.”

He adds: “In a consumer industry, however, like retail or high street banking, managing that volume of customers is a full-time and relatively repetitive job. Keeping high performers in those jobs is always going to be difficult as they clamour to move up the management chain and on to more challenging tasks.”

Making it happen

A long tradition of seeing customer service as a low status department and paying customer service agents poorly means that keeping top performers in front line positions is now extremely difficult. However, companies that do achieve it reap the rewards.

Judith Germain, managing director of leadership company Dynamic Transitions, believes that companies should strive to keep top performers on the front line.

“It can be devastating to a company’s bottom line when you take a top performer and shackle them to a line management career path,” she warns. “Top performers are usually wilfully independent mavericks, and what they really want is recognition for their talents and appropriate rewards that distinguish them from their peers.”

She offers this advice on how to incentivise those top performers: “Corporate pay structures need to be flexible enough to reward top performers without giving them line manager responsibility. Companies should look to provide depth in employees’ roles to give them more recognition and broadening of skills.”

Russell Hobby, associate director at global management consultancy Hay Group, agrees. “You need to ensure that promotion to management is not the only route to status, pay rises, autonomy and respect within your organisation,” he says.

“It is right, however, to expect a wider contribution from front line stars who are given these higher status roles. You want them to role model the right behaviours, coach new team members and share their insights.”

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