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Opinion: Why Has the Front Line Been Left Out of the Tech Evolution?

Retailers need to empower those who work closest with customers

FORT MILL, S.C. -- It took 3,700 years for humans to move from transcribing a customer complaint on a stone tablet to having a computer and the World Wide Web available. But since the internet appeared, it has taken us less than 30 years to get where we are today—and that pace is only accelerating.

Today we have technology that allows us to turn on a gas pump and pay for fuel with our phone. We can order coffee from our watch and have it ready for pickup when we arrive. We can customize and pay for hot food from a kiosk without interacting with anyone. And we have put electric-vehicle charging stations next to fuel pumps.

Why, then, in this age of technological evolution, do we still see remnants such as the dreaded cleaning checklist on the back of the restroom door—a document that announces that the restroom hasn’t been cleaned for the past six hours? This form is easily and affordably replaced by simple SaaS-based automation software, so why does it still exist?

True Differentiator

The truth is that technological efforts for front-line employees have been related to efficiency and control measures—for example, security systems and point-of-sale (POS) terminals. There have been few changes focused on automation, which not only helps the front-line employees do their jobs but also engages them.

Think about the number of times and ways a manager or an employee records something on paper that is eventually discarded. Why are retailers not tracking, analyzing and using information about how their front-line employees are doing their job to drive improvements, in the same way they treat customer and POS data?

A Walker study predicts that by 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator. If front-line employees are at the core of delivering customer experience, brands need to empower them with technology that will help them improve execution.

But it shouldn’t end there. We should not only incorporate technology into front-line operations but also combine the information with our voice of the customer, social media, operational audits, and other data to help drive effective change.

Let’s go back to our simple restroom example: Imagine if we knew over time which restrooms were being cleaned at what frequency and then compared that to location performance combined with financial and customer metrics. What if we found a direct correlation with carrying out the restroom checklist and the improvement of key performance indicators?

This task gets the respect of the operations team and makes it easier to get buy-in from the front line, because everyone wants to know that what they are doing makes a difference.

Future Goals

Retailers participating in this year’s shopper insights study are already homing in on these futuristic restrooms. Chevron officials spoke to CSP about how they might use technology for the front line at their ExtraMile chain.

“We are working on the station of the future and becoming more digital,” says Paul Casadont, president of ExtraMile Convenience Stores LLC, San Ramon, Calif. “[Los Angeles International Airport] just piloted a smart restroom, using technology that keeps track of how many patrons use a restroom and alerts an employee to clean the restroom at a certain threshold. There are technologies for mobile devices that let customers know when restrooms are cleaned and available too. Maybe those could have a place at ExtraMile in the future.”

While the true restroom of the future may still be a few years away, the ability to start using technology to track simple tasks and drive action is available and affordable today.

The only question is: When are we going to start bringing frontline employees into the technological evolution that is already underway?

Cameron Watt is president and CEO of Intouch Insight. Reach him at

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