The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front Line Employee

Last month, on a tip from Alex Nisbett’s blog, I decided to check out an article in Fast Company about a writer who had gone undercover to work in retail as a front-line employee in a string of service companies for his new book.

From Punching In:

During a two-year urban adventure throught the world of commerce, Alex Frankel applied for and was hired by a half-dozen companies: he proudly wore the brown uniform of the UPS driver, folded endless stacks of T-shirts at Gap, brewed espressos for the hordes at Starbucks, interviewed (but failed to get hired) at Whole Foods [and the Container Store and Home Depot], enrolled in management training at Enterprise Rent-a-Car, and sold iPods at the Apple Store.

I worked as a bank teller for a few summers while I was in college, but it’s been a while since I counted myself as a service worker so I was eager to pick up a copy of the book to get a first-hand account of the world we’re designing for.

It’s a pretty quick read. The author, Alex Frankel, focuses on his backstage interactions with the companies and his co-workers, but doesn’t spend as much time as I would have liked on his interactions with customers. Still, he paints some compelling vignettes (that are occasionally disquieting) and while the book doesn’t have the kinds of insights I expected, there’s still some interesting content for service designers to soak in.

Frankel admits that he wasn’t a naturally good personality fit for many of the jobs, a fact he was required to supress.

For whatever reason, I am not overwhelmingly compelled to join up with others. … My inclinations toward independent work had been there all along, but I had to live through the experiences to understand that some people have a hard time believing and don’t make the best front-line employees.

The efforts by companies to mold Frankel into an employee are interesting. Some simply screen out anyone who doesn’t fit their behavioral profile of an ideal employee. Others work hard to indoctrinate employees into their culture. The most successful was UPS who gave him a uniform and a crash course in package delivery along with a good deal of autonomy in his role as the human face of the company.

About midway though the chapter on the Gap, I questioned whether retail design is a worthwhile pursuit for service designers. There’s obviously a lot that could be improved from the customer experience perspective but it seems pretty hollow. For better or worse not all services are created equal. I need to spend some time thinking about why that is.

Why do services like package delivery or car rental or airline travel or healthcare seem like a better fit?

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