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Who’s on Your Front Line?

Go to your dentist to get your teeth cleaned, and a certified dental hygienist does the work.

Why a Lack of College-Educated Employees Can be a Problem

Ira Friedman is the CEO of Bay Audio, a manufacturer of custom speaker solutions. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School.Go to your dentist to get your teeth cleaned, and a certified dental hygienist does the work. Need your building plans updated? A college-educated, junior architect handles your day-to-day dealings.

The front-facing employees in these firms are educated and paid well.

Hire a CI firm to install your AV system, however, and the front-line personnel are often high school grads working for a living wage.

Your Field Staff is Your Image

You might have a polished salesperson. Your project manager may have a college degree. But these employees spend brief moments with your clients. Instead, your clients, as well as your peers (architects, builders, interior designers) interact more frequently with your field staff.

Why does Disneyland feel different than Universal Studios? It’s the front-line personnel. Why does buying a used BMW from a dealership feel different than buying it from a used car lot? Again, it’s the frontline personnel. Apple versus Best Buy store employees; Southwest versus USAir flight attendants. The list goes on.

As a consumer, you rate your experience with the product based on your total interaction with the company. The product counts. But the people you deal with are just as important.

Mike’s Barbecue

It was 6pm, and I was driving past Mike’s Barbecue–a restaurant I’d never seen before. I stopped and Yelped “Mike’s” to find an overall rating of 3.5 stars. Not a good sign. Reading further, I found the food was rated highly, but that Mike’s suffered from “uncaring,” “disinterested,” and “ignorant” staff.

Unfazed, I went into Mike’s despite the warnings. It’s true; the food was good, but the guy at the counter was a total jerk. I don’t think I’ll go back.

Dear Mike

If I could talk to Mike, I’d tell him his frontfacing strategy is failing. Sure, the sauce is good. But if I’m in a sour mood because the counter guy treated me poorly, then my total experience has suffered.

The Biggest Difference is the Personnel

Compare a typical CI org chart to an architect’s. The CI dealership is skewed toward entry-level, non-degreed personnel. Not so with the architect, whose interns have college degrees.

Compare a dental practice. Hygenists–the entry-level personnel–have a degree and license, and earn an average of $35,000 annually. Most interior designers? Also degreed.

Imagine how smoothly projects would run and the end-user experience if every member of your team had a college degree.In comparison, the average CI dealership has forward facing employees closer in pay and education level to a landscaper.

The Exposed Process

Typical manufacturers have people that design (highly educated, paid well), people that sell (educated, paid well), and people that make (lower educated, paid less). Manufacturing clients interact with salespeople, and often designers, but not with the “makers.”

The CI business, in essence, is a manufacturing business, but the manufacturing takes place in the client’s home, fully exposing the makers. Exposing the makers causes two problems with a client. First, the client begins to devalue your offerings as they watch everyday workers do everyday work. And second, the client comes to see your entire company as a reflection of the makers: how they dress, how they talk to one another, and how professionally they work.

Think what your company would look like if every member of the team had a college degree–in networking, acoustics, videography, or programming. Imagine how smoothly projects would run. Think about the end-user experience. Think about the resources you could subcontract– from pre-wire, to warehousing, to delivery.

This is compelling, for certain, but paying your current staff more isn’t the answer. And firing everybody is disruptive. The strategy is to make the changes slowly, over the course of a year or two.

Start by picking your best employees and sending them back to school. You need higher education to maximize your success. Make these people your front-line managers.

Then, as you experience natural attrition from your entry-level employees, instead of re-hiring more of the same, shift the work to your upgraded managerial staff and subcontractors. Rehire top-end people to fill your new positions as required.

Wrap your head around this: your new staff might cost 50 percent more than before, but your clients will get better service, done right, done fast. The best way to fix your front-line is to put your best people forward.