Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Product dealerships and service providers: The standard problem with their frontlines

'Frontlines' is the term used for the service/sales force that are at the interface between the customer and the brand

Published: May 18, 2017 01:26:04 AM IST
Updated: May 18, 2017 12:10:35 PM IST

 Product dealerships and service providers: The standard problem with their frontlinesIn all the variety of interactions, there is one line of conversation that is predictably common to all the frontline staff across the dealerships, of diesel versus petrol cars
Image by: Anindito Mukherjee/ Reuters

Our family was on the car market recently. We did our homework to the extent we could on the net, and then we needed to take the inevitable last steps towards making a decision: visiting the dealerships and test drive. I was hoping that the last mile, the service at the dealerships would make the journey towards a final choice meaningful. I’ll get to the whether we found our purpose a little later, but there are few aspects that stood out in my interaction with the frontline staff.

Frontlines, to get the definitions in place, is the term used for the service/sales force that are at the interface between the customer and the brand. Examples are pharmaceutical sales representatives, delivery staff for an ecommerce brand, service personnel at restaurants, and the staff at an auto dealership, the case in point.

When we visited a foreign automakers’ dealership we were greeted with a Namaste, but a domestic brand was more like a Good evening, Sir/Madam! Foreign car makers will tell you about their expanding service network (galli galli mein service station hoga), and the percentage of localized parts (reduced lifetime costs). They will also tell you about the cars that are considered their closest competition, and supply you with facts that are supposed to help you dismiss the competition. You will also learn about how serious these automakers are about India as a market and how they have engineered their cars to suit the Indian conditions. And then of course, you are loaded with other miscellaneous facts such as financing, free insurance, warranty coverage etc. In all the variety of interactions, there is one line of conversation that is predictably common to all the frontline staff across the dealerships, of diesel versus petrol cars. “How many kilometres a month do you drive?” If the answer is < 1000 then you will be advised a petrol variant, and diesel otherwise.

The frontline process across dealerships is so standardized, one might think these personnel may have come off the same assembly line, like the Renault Duster and Nissan Terrano supposedly do. In addition to being predictable, the staff come across as hearteningly knowledgeable both about their make as well as the competition. These dealerships also do not have all male staff, most seemed to employ women too in this profession, more or less. Put together, these ingredients should be part of the perfect recipe for a good frontline service process. Except that it is not, because the experience leaves out an essential ingredient: the customer and more importantly his needs.

There were a few things we were grappling with before we visited the dealerships. Whether to buy a petrol or diesel variant was not one of them. Our needs had to determine which car we were going to buy, not the other way around. We would have happily stated our needs, if asked that is. The ‘pitch’ of the conversation though was in an auto mode, geared towards the male member of the family and his stereotypical aspirations for power and statement. Despite repeated attempts by my husband to indicate that he is not the primary driver, the service personnel, both male and female, directed all the information at him, including an offer for a test drive. There were cues about our needs screaming out loud, but were the frontline staff equipped to listen? I am not so sure.

Frontline managers and employees constitute about 60% of a company’s workforce. Starbucks’ $35 Mn recent investment in store managers’ training alone, suggests recognition of importance of frontlines to companies. Similar numbers for Indian companies are scarce but one can extrapolate the idea. Increasingly we see a lot of standardization in frontline processes in India; hospitals, retail stores are some examples. Most of these processes I reckon, are a result of a top-down approach.

A strategic team does the ground work on the market, the competition, and customer needs. In combination with the organizational goals, a process is evolved that is passed down to the frontline staff as a broad script: what should the staff wear, how should they greet, what questions should they ask, what information is to be shared with the customer, and so on. The top down approach to frontline service is organized, intentional, and extremely efficient in executing a predetermined set of service goals. If the customer problem being solved is a generic one (eg:- like which toppings to choose for a pizza), it also a highly appropriate one. However, for many involved, non-generic, complex customer problems a top down approach to frontline process design is not without problems. I’ll highlight the main issues through little vignettes.

I recently dined in a European-brand cafe where I asked for water along with my order. I got a bottle of unbranded water and I consumed it, unquestioningly. As I approached to pay for my order, much to my surprise, the cashier too sipped water from the same bottle. I was given her backwash (jhoota), basically. I learnt later that the cafe didn’t have water for sale, and they didn’t keep free water for consumption. The cashier didn’t hesitate to lend her bottle, which I am sure in her mind was the right thing to do. The service process was designed perhaps in Europe, with the assumption that if the cafe is out of water, customers will buy beer instead. That would have been the case if it was Europe. In India denying water to the thirsty is a crime.

As with the cafe example, in coming up with the frontline process, some assumptions have to be made on the customer behavior. One of the problems with the top-down approach is that not all of those assumptions are scripted for validation at the time of execution. The cultural disconnect between the service design team and frontline staff only gets exaggerated in this process.

Second, the pre-destined frontline service process has little room to address unanticipated customer needs. For example, a customer who received a gift from a friend through an order on an ecommerce website wanted to exchange. To his embarrassment, the exchange triggered a series of informative e-mails regarding the return to the sender. Fortunately, the sender was his friend and not his mother-in-law. The discretion necessary for handling gift exchanges was not accounted for in the original order handling process. This can be an easy fix, if only there is a way for this information to flow back to the process design team at the top.

There are other problems too in a process designed for the bottom by the top. From an employee point of view, the standardized processes become mind numbingly routine over time. I was signaling to the staff at a dealership that most of our driving was going to be in city traffic. In response, I only heard about how rugged this particular car is, and how perfect it is for adventurous terrains. The one-way conversation was like a train set in motion. There are stops, but there’s only one direction it’ll go. It is a perfect signal to employees that your creativity is not needed here.

As frontline processes are usually an amalgamation of both service and sales, the territorial nature of sales force incentives too interferes with the philosophy of service. The customer expects to be helped with his decision, but the frontline staff usually assist to self-serving ends. In a multi-brand retail store, I found myself being pawned off from one sales assistant to another simply because I had multiple brands in my consideration set, whereas the store employed and incentivized salespeople at the brand level.

We may have come a long way from adamant adherence to Jugaad to a standardized process. The increased efficiency of hospital staff despite heavy congestion, the scaling up of aggregator companies such as cabs and buses, the take-off of e-commerce companies like are in part thanks to efficiently designed frontline processes. The very same frontline staff also take part in rich learning on the ground. Unless the processes are set up for backward flow of information, unless the people on the ground are empowered to take their learning seriously, until the frontline staff are encouraged to listen, I am sure companies will be reinventing the wheel over and over again.
Coming back to our car story, along our buying process we received several calls from the dealerships we visited.  All of these calls continued along a scripted course of action. As for our decision, we made one because we had to. Did the frontline staff learn about why we chose or did not choose their brand? I concluded at this point, that they have neither a clue nor a care.

Prof. Sreelata Jonnalagedda is a Faculty of Marketing at IIM Bangalore. Views expressed are personal.

[This article has been published with permission from IIM Bangalore. Views expressed are personal.]