FRONTLINE SKILLS THAT MAKE A DIFFERENCE
Psychologist Howard Gardner, whose pioneering work has rocked the field of educational psychology, reminds us that the conventional thinking on intelligence has been that humans could learn anything if only the subject matter were presented in the right way. That is a roundabout way of saying that success in education is a matter of how much money is thrown at it. Gardner’s own theory is that there are seven different intelligences—linguistic, logical, mathematical, musical, bodily kinetic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal—each with its own strengths and limitations. Gardner’s work squares nicely with the experience we encounter in educating and training the frontline worker: individuals learn in a variety of ways, and the diversity of the required skills is such that each poses its own set of educational challenges. Further, the onus for learning depends as much on the individual as it does on the educator or the educational system.
A relevant question in this context is whether the fundamental skills needed for successful customer interactions are strictly learnable. The answer is yes and no: some of the key skills are learnable, while others aren’t. I believe I can teach a reasonably intelligent person to solve a quadratic equation or to read El Cid in Spanish (neither of which, thankfully, is needed for most work on the front line!). In contrast, I know a vice president of marketing who occasions the use of bomb throwing to make his arguments, who stands little or no chance of becoming more affable, gracious, even tempered, or fair. This man, in my opinion, cannot be trained to be anything other than whom or what he is. Why is that? I believe, like Gardner, there are different intelligences or, using the term more loosely, different skill sets at work, some more learnable than others. Technical skills or the technical details of performing a job are usually learnable. Most other skills are innate in the individual. In the case of the vice president of marketing, his interpersonal intelligence is probably at maximum capacity.
It is very difficult to predict whether a job applicant will be successful on the front line on the basis of one or more job interviews or by inspecting a candidate’s resume florid with expressions of accomplishments. No. The candidate for a frontline job—perhaps any job in the organization—must have his skills tested and his background thoroughly checked. I might give an edge to an individual who has a shorter resume but who possesses relevant life experiences such as serving in the military with distinction, but the basic core of skills must always be present. Here is a survey of the skills I find most important—again, the depth of which must be in keeping with the job at hand—for work on the front line:
1. Cognitive abilities. To be effective as a frontline worker, the individual must bring to the job average or above-average cognitive—that is, mental—abilities. Cognitive abilities relevant to the frontline worker include conceptual reasoning, attention span, working memory, reading skills, and brain speed. At our company, candidates for frontline jobs who have made it to a final round of interviews are given a take-home, essay-writing assignment that is intended to tell us the following: (1) whether they can critically process the information garnered during their interviews, (2) whether they have the ability to organize and develop a reasoned response, and (3) whether they have the ability to compose a credible response in writing. Candidates are given two or three days to return their response.
The actual assignment will vary from job to job and might vary from individual to individual based on the feedback of interviewers, but it is made clear to the candidate that there is no correct answer, and that, in the end, the company decides in its subjective judgment whether the response is appropriate to the question or questions asked. A sample essay question to a candidate for a sales position, for example, might go something like this: “Explain how you would factor in each of the elements of the company’s mission statement into your marketing plan?” Surprisingly, few candidates pass this screen successfully for a variety of reasons having to do with their inability to listen and recall interview facts, think critically, and write cogently. In those cases when we have ignored the warning signals of a poor essay response in favor of a candidate’s seemingly more attractive qualities, we have regretted our hiring decision.
Standardized testing can set the benchmark score for an ideal employee in a given enterprise and in a given job. This is not to say that the higher an applicant scores on such a test or on a given phase of the test the more qualified she is apt to be—in fact, the opposite may be true. A benchmark is important in order to set the minimum standard for admission into the ranks and to ensure that the individual has the capacity to grow and learn as the job evolves. A caution to the organization that chooses to test its applicants in this area, however, is that cognitive abilities are known to decline with age, and so scrupulous record keeping is required to ensure that the employer is administering and interpreting the tests fairly.
2. Communications skills. The frontline worker is a communicator pure and simple. Much of the work of the frontline worker involves having conversations and even negotiations with the customer. It stands to reason, therefore, that oral communications skills as well as writing and reading skills are at a premium on the front line. In contrast to the observation about the potential of there being a point of diminishing returns with respect to cognitive abilities—that is, more is not necessarily better for a given job—the same cannot be said of communications skills. This is an area where high test scores should be most sought after.
Underscoring the need for the supplier to be selective in its hiring practices, however, consider that in a test of adult literacy conducted by the U.S. Department of Education in 2003, only 13 percent of those tested were found to be proficient in reading and comprehending prose. Verbal communications delivered in a manner that is clear, crisp, concise, complete, and void of jargon or slang allow for exchanges with the customer that minimize misunderstandings, confusion, and ill will. And, nothing will choke off a supplier’s potential for excellence in service more effectively than poor communications. Finally, frontline workers with a face to the customer must comport themselves appropriately. Retail store associates clad in football jerseys giving each other high fives or swapping stories of their sexual exploits, as I have been a witness to, have no place on the front line.
3. Computer literacy and skill with numbers. Next in priority of necessary skills are computer literacy and numerical dexterity. In the service and information age, these skills are very much in demand. Computer literacy as defined here means both knowledge of the use of computer applications, such as Word or Excel, as well as understanding the actual workings of computers. Unfortunately, training in computer literacy stresses the former to the near exclusion of the latter.
Rote learning is a poor substitute to an understanding of computer fundamentals, especially in light of rapid technology product cycles. Does anyone remember Lotus 1–2–3? How about WordStar? A solid foundation in the basics of computing is a necessary complement to hands-on training to ensure that the frontline worker does not become obsolete with the computer application du jour.
As to math skills, the United States ranks near the bottom of the industrialized nations in math proficiency—ahead of only Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Mexico. So the pool of math talent available to the nation’s employers is not overly generous. If this trend is not reversed, this fact alone will lead to the continued erosion of important jobs in our nation. Having said all of this, it is difficult to generalize about the extent of the required proficiency of skills on the front line—beyond basic arithmetic—because a number of situational factors will influence the necessary skill level required of a particular job. For example, will the math need to be done with paper and pencil, calculator, computer? Will information systems and computer tools support the interaction with customers? Will the frontline worker have ready access to support staff of higher-level skills? A solid understanding of the specific computer and math skills of a particular frontline job is imperative in order to administer a standardized test to screen job applicants.
4. Soft skills. Think of the stages we as humans transit on the way to becoming adults. We begin with prenatal experiences; then move to infancy; proceed to school age, adolescence, and young adulthood; and finally—if we haven’t messed up along the way—arrive at adulthood. Now think of the actors who influence those of us while in transit: parents, siblings, other family members, physicians, friends, teachers, pastors, employers, to name a few. Is it any wonder that an individual’s grasp of the world—that is, the psychology of others—is so much a function of his life’s journey?
Soft skills or traits can be categorized as either personal or interpersonal and are absolutely mandatory for any frontline job. They include extroversion, politeness, a sense of humor, integrity, honesty, and patience. These traits exist on a continuum. At one end of the scale, for example, is the introverted individual, reserved and not very sociable; at the other end is the extrovert, gregarious and assertive. These trait expressions remain with us through life, though at times moving along their continuum. Personality tests are generally helpful—not infallible in and of themselves—in discerning the presence and strengths of desirable workplace traits in individuals and so should be administered to round out an intelligent program of preemployment testing.
This discussion and emphasis on preemployment testing is purposeful. It is indicative of the importance an employer places on a job at the front line that these positions are not filled with a hope and a prayer. The investment is more than worth it. The application of science to make testing part of the hiring process will result in less employee turnover, increased productivity, and a front line that will be better able to deliver a consistent message of service to the customer.Google+