Claire Sweet, UX researcher at insurance company Asurion, explains how you can build empathy with frontline employees and why it’s so important.
In the world of UX we often talk about how important it is to know our customers, which of course it is, but what if we also knew the people who interact with our customers? Customer service representatives, salespeople, or delivery drivers for example?
This was the question I proposed to Asurion. Seeing that almost 100% of our customer interactions happen with a frontline employee (internally known as 'Experts'), we should understand them just as well as we understand our customers.
To solve this, I kicked off the Expert Attitudinal Personas Project. This is the story of how I did it...
The Experts are the face and the heart of our company. Not the designers, not the engineers, or even the C-suite. When our customers reach out to Asurion, they’re reaching the Experts. So it made perfect sense to me and the research team that we could learn so much more from these folks.
We also needed to distill this information into something that we could share with everyone else in the company. We wanted to be able to turn to anyone in the company and say, “Hey, if you want to understand who these people are, here’s a pretty good resource to learn from.” So we got to work.
As with any big project, you need to make sure you’re not stepping on any toes. In this case, we would need to be talking to our frontline workers – the people who our customers interact with every day, people working odd hours, long hours, in time-sensitive roles with very little in the way of free time for UX interviews.
Certainly, none of them would have the 45 minutes we needed for a useable interview. So, I had to approach multiple directors for permission to – in effect – distract these frontline workers from their duties for almost an hour.
Don’t be pressured to skip this step; it may go much better than you think. In my case, I didn’t get a single “no” because we had clearly defined and demonstrated the value of the project.
Even better, we weren’t challenged with KPIs and directors knocking on the door every month for updates. We were given the time to do what we needed and to do it right. It’s a mindset I’ve tried to push at Asurion – if we take time to do something really well, good things happen.
So, how did we go about gaining the insight we needed?
We talked to 32 of our frontline Experts in interviews of around 45 minutes and applied a model by Indi Young, who is something of a guru within the personas space. Using the principles she lays out, we went through each interview, repeatedly analyzing them to sieve out the parts that held real value and discard the less relevant stuff.
My team and I then placed this data into a spreadsheet and marked out areas of depth, migrating these to a Miro online whiteboard. In those golden times before 2020, we would have been the classic UX team with sticky notes on every wall and all over the ceiling, but remote working meant we had to adapt. So we had our digital walls instead.
But even at this stage, we couldn’t say precisely why these things had struck us as interesting – we had more digging to do.
There was a lot of grouping and discussion, placing different quotes in different buckets, taking them back out, trying to find a spectrum or a matrix. That’s just how it goes sometimes. Eventually, though, we hit the “eureka!” moment.
After days of immersing ourselves in these words, we suddenly got it. I can’t imagine there is any sort of science behind that, but I’m sure every UX team can relate to that magic moment when you suddenly understand what’s happening.
Given the endless roadblocks that COVID-19 threw our way, it took a full year for us to finally find our personas. But there was value in the new way of working that the pandemic bought with it. We had to change our approach and change the context to become more attitudinal than we had been in the ‘before times’.
The result was a good baseline foundation which we can now build on and validate as we return to business as usual.
So, we had our personas and we had been successful, but now we had to get this information out there to the people who could use it most. It’s all well and good to send out an email saying, “If you need this information, please come to me” but in reality that soon gets pushed to the back of everyone’s mind.
Instead, we launched a series of activation sessions, working with each team and applying our learnings to the real-world situations they are facing.
For example, the HR team’s session revealed the need to hire a specific type of employee for a brand new service we were launching. But they had no experience of talking to this sort of person. It was almost too perfect! We were able to walk them through the different personas and how they could use them to define a voice or a method of communication that really resonated with this soon-to-be employee.
We could see the information really land, we had a room full of people finding real value and showing huge enthusiasm for what we had made.
Understanding the Experts and understanding their interactions with our customers can help us define a more perfect customer experience. It’s a bit like matchmaking: if we know what sort of Experts customers could gel with, we’d have less hand-holding to do, less chaperoning of the first date, and we could let our Experts do their thing so customers receive the best service.
We’re still working on reaching this happily ever after, but it’s always good to understand both the long-term and short-term benefits of a project.
We have the basics down for these key personas but everyone in the world is different, and we have tens of thousands of frontline workers each starring in their own customer interactions. In short, we’re far from done.
Next, we’ll be talking to market research to validate our findings with quantitative studies. That’s another thing that makes these projects so valuable and beneficial – this isn’t just about me and my team in UX. Yes, it’s a UX story, but it’s also a CX story, an employee story, a market research story, a human story. It has implications and impact across the wider company and the communities we serve and belong to.
For me, though, the objective that has kept me going is knowing I can practice my empathetic endurance, as said by anthropologist Sekai Farai, to become an advocate, carrying this knowledge of the frontline to the very top to shape things that will improve the lives of our customers and every member of our team long after this strange year is done.