Frontline workers tend to be overlooked when it comes to technology. But the growing awareness that they, too, need access to the latest digital tools is pushing companies to change how they do business.
For Massachusetts-based Ferguson, which says it’s the largest distributor of plumbing supplies in the U.S., that realisation meant the deployment of Microsoft’s Teams platform and a shift to channel-based communications.
The company says the move has already helped improve customer service with faster, more effective information sharing.
Ferguson, which had US$16.7 billion in sales last year, wanted to focus on its frontline workers as part of a digital workplace program that centres around the use of Office 365 and a rollout earlier this year of Teams.
The application is now in regular use by over half of Ferguson’s 28,000 workers across 1,400 sales locations and 10 distribution centres.
Teams was launched by Microsoft in 2017 as the team collaboration component in its Office 365 app suite; it also replaced Skype for Business as the tool for workplace communications. Over the past year or so, Microsoft has begun to aim Teams at frontline or “first line” workers in industries such as hospitality and retail.
“Until recently, frontline workers were outside the realm of IT workers,” said Raúl Castañón-Martínez, a senior analyst at 451 Research.
“There are several reasons for this, including the fact that collaboration tools have traditionally focused on knowledge workers. This is changing now. Organisations are becoming increasingly aware that digital transformation initiatives are relevant for all employees; this is particularly evident for client-interfacing positions.”
Teams and the showroom
At Ferguson, the Teams app is being embraced by showroom consultants who are the first point of contact for customers. These workers answer any questions, check stock and generally assist with purchases at one of the store’s showrooms.
Since most Ferguson products are on display, the workers often need to check inventory before making a sale. In the past, this generally meant turning attention away from the customer while on the phone or trying to locate colleagues, said Tony Morris, director of business process at Ferguson.
“Historically, the showroom consultant would have to get on the phone or walk to the back office for the physical warehouse and say, ‘Hey I'm looking for this product, do we have it? Can you bring it out?’ They have to disengage from the customer somewhat and the customer is then on hold, waiting. That has not been a great experience for the customer - it can take time,” Morris said.
With the introduction of chat rooms in Teams – known as channels – sales staffers at Ferguson can now find the information they need by posting a request to back office workers using their mobile device. As a result, showroom sales assistants can interact with customers from the showroom floor with less distraction.
“They can continue to service the customer but get feedback right through the Teams app, which is nice because they can give that information to the customer without putting the customer on hold or feel like the customer is sitting around waiting.”
Previously at Ferguson, staffers mainly relied on phone calls for communication, as well as Skype and Jabber. WhatsApp may have been used on an ad-hoc basis in some branches, but was not encouraged by the company.
A key benefit of Teams lies in channel-based communications, said Morris. This means a sales associate doesn’t need to know the name of a particular person within the organisation to get the right information.
“The fact that we can now have dedicated channels for different departments, groups, or even business outcomes – things that we really want to focus on – that makes such a big difference,” said Morris.
“The experts in our business for those specific topics or categories can hone in on those channels and provide feedback. Before, even with Jabber, you would have to know who you were reaching out. And so it just wasn't very efficient.”
Teams and the wholesale counter
Another way Teams is used involves counter staff who sell direct to building contractors. These customers have different requirements than retail shoppers and typically know which products they want to buy and, in many cases, make purchases on company credit.
In the event of a problem, such as a customer’s account being put on hold, the sales associate is required to call back-office colleagues to get information about any outstanding invoices.
That process can be time consuming for the sales staffers and awkward for customers as their case is dealt with over the phone. Again, said Morris, Teams offered a faster and more effective way to get this information to frontline staff and smooth out the sales process.
“Once we introduced Teams, our counter staff started to build channels,” he said. “They can just post a message and say, ‘I have a customer at the counter, they are on credit hold, here is some information I need.’ They can do it without talking and so save the customer from embarrassment.
"With Teams, it is really efficient because they can communicate at the same time, regardless of what they are in the middle of.”
Lessons for other companies
Castañón-Martínez said that Ferguson’s experience is an example of how frontline workers can benefit from real-time, mobile communications in verticals such as retail, particularly for client-facing employees.
"Nowadays, most employees have access to a mobile device, and use it to communicate with their coworkers,” he said. “They may be using SMS or OTT consumer apps such as WhatsApp; however, not only do these pose a security risk, they are not built for work-related activities.
“Using a tool such as Microsoft Teams will enable employees to contact each other without the need to exchange their personal phone numbers; it also allows them to create channels based on their specific requirements such as shifts, function, back office versus client-interfacing,” Castañón-Martínez said.
For Microsoft, the focus on frontline line workers is part of the evolution of Teams since its full launch two years ago.
“Microsoft’s strategy has significantly evolved in the past year, in several ways,” said Castañón-Martínez.“It remains a horizontal tool; but is aggressively targeting frontline workers, providing capabilities that will appeal to organisations in verticals such as health care, retail and education.”