A significant number of frontline employees are indifferent to customers, and some even enjoy riling those who pay their wages. We must stop this – writes Alex Warner


To take your mind off the coronavirus, here’s another cheerless subject – grumpy frontline employees. Whilst I’m not suggesting that the two are intrinsically linked, some might not unreasonably claim that rudeness towards customers is a pernicious virus that infects others on a geographic scale, inflicting its misery on innocent people.

Firstly, I am respectful of the contribution of frontline teams, but they are, in some instances, well remunerated and tend to enjoy extensive job security. What they do is also generally good, but more often what they are paid for.

They may, in some cases, be stars but to hyperbolically describe them as “legends” or akin to “war heroes” as many patronising CEOs do (often for their own self-worth to be seen to be great leaders themselves) is wrong. As rough as a Friday night shift on the gateline at Dagenham Heathway (and I have worked that shift, since you asked), it is not the trenches in World War 1.

Some have nothing but contempt for the people who pay their wages and actively derive enjoyment from riling them

Most of all, let’s not forget that hidden behind all the propaganda, there is still a not insignificant minority of some 10% – based on the extensive mystery shops that I and my team undertake – who display indifference towards customers. Some have nothing but contempt for the people who pay their wages and actively derive enjoyment from riling them.

What to do then about the 10% customer service dissidents? It’s a dilemma that dominates almost every meeting I have with transport managers. The problem with the response of managers is that too often it shrugs its shoulders and hides behind the barriers of the trade union environment and the difficulty in getting errant staff off line to properly performance manage them, as an excuse not to do anything. If you take a bus driver off for a ticking off or coaching or suspend him or her, then that’s another gap in the roster to fill. If you’re tight on numbers, you don’t want to wind them up either, in case they go on sick leave.

The problem in my view is that all of the above might have a grain of truth in it, but it’s cobblers really. A genuinely good leader will have the conviction to unlock time in the roster or even follow the problematic person on their shift to give them a word in their ear or watch them at work. A classy manager will put in place robust measures to monitor the performance of their people and use this to make informed decisions on how they manage, develop or disarm them.

Decent managers will also use other tactics. In truly customer-centric cultures – such as at the top hotels and brands such as Disneyland, Apple or John Lewis, for instance, the rhetoric around driving customer satisfaction is intense and omnipresent. The visual messages in canteens and internal areas subconsciously create a zero tolerance approach to any deficiency in customer service. It also drives peer pressure influences too. Nobody wants to look like the village idiot standing out as being far behind others when it comes to what is viewed by all as the core competency to be delivered.

My consultancy delivers ‘Delight the Customer’ training for frontline employees – we’ve just finished training 1,500 bus drivers overseas and it is always fascinating how quickly in the room, positivity amongst colleagues isolates the dissident.

When the post-apocalypse rebuild commences, we’ll need to suck up to customers more than ever before.

It will be interesting to see the extent to which the penny drops with the anti-customer brigade when revenues are decimated by the coronavirus and customers need to be completely schmoozed back on-board public transport. When the post-apocalypse rebuild commences, we’ll need to suck up to customers more than ever before.

This might sound a bit draconian but I genuinely feel that the industry needs to mirror the penal code when it comes to dealing with those frontline employees who repeatedly go out of their way to annoy customers and erode the very security of the business that is their livelihood. Offenders are spared custodial sentence on the basis of a period of community service combined with going on some kind of programme where they are taught not to reoffend and also are driven to reflect on their crimes.

I’m currently working on a course which does just that for frontline employees. If, for instance, they hit a certain threshold of customer complaints and poor mystery shopping scores, they are put in our hands to give them intensive, focused re-training designed to deliver both rapid results and transform their whole mindset and behaviours. I won’t claim it’s plain sailing, the course uses the most experienced and resilient of trainers and aims to get right to the heart of the psychology that makes someone think it is acceptable to be anything but always courteous with customers. It also involves high-octane, follow-up processes involving their managers back on the frontline.

Part of the problem, though, is that many managers aren’t doing the follow-up when it comes to their grumpy people on the front line. There’s no “on the job” coaching, mainly because your typical staff manager in a bus company is paranoid that if she or he dares leave the office to travel on the network, and actually see what their drivers get up to, the whole running of the business will implode back at the office – because they’re no longer behind their desk dealing with the next in the line of “sick, lame or lazy” (as they are often referred to by the suits).

These same junior managers have not only their MD on their case but also those at group-level on their back, shoving them on endless conference calls and nobbling them over sickness levels amongst drivers – but seldom, if ever, around the quality of customer service they are delivering.

Imagine a staff manager on a call excusing high absenteeism to the fact that his or her eye had been off the ball a little whilst chasing drivers round the network in a concerted effort to focus on their attitude towards customers. Short shrift would, I guarantee you, be granted.

The problem is also exacerbated by a lack of role models, not so at a junior level necessarily, but further up the organisation, where some who have risen up the ranks have the charisma and interpersonal skills of a newt. They would be utterly incapable of imbuing a sense of friendliness towards customers from the frontline employees they ultimately preside over from their ivory towers.

Before you lot suggest that my punitive stance on rude employees must mean that I have the human rights record of Genghis Khan, I’ll have you know that when I was a subsidiary managing director in probably the UK’s largest and most militant unionised owning group across any sector, my businesses, for every year when I was in charge, achieved the highest employee satisfaction surveys of any operational business. Our scores were higher even than almost every HQ function, with their cushy hours, piping hot radiators, free coffee and days spent internet shopping or coasting through meetings indulging in pointless MBA babble.

I came a long way from my early 20s at London Underground when the local union reps put drawing pins on my chair and referred to me as “a flea who leaps from one secondment to another” in the Jubilee and East London lines RMT newsletter. For me, managing people is about a proportionate approach – treat the good people with respect and as equals (and not subordinate puppets to be patronised) and tackle head-on the customer malcontents with the level of disrespect their stance deserves.

Of course, not every rude employee means to come across as unpleasant. In these wonderfully diverse days where employees derive from such a huge range of cultures, they will manifest different styles and language that might be totally acceptable in their nation of origin, but less so elsewhere. There will also be others’ who have the right intent but not necessarily the confidence.

There’s a danger in thinking that only extroverts and rah-rah energetic nutters like me can deliver great customer service – we shouldn’t always put everyone in one box

There’s a danger in thinking that only extroverts and rah-rah energetic nutters like me can deliver great customer service – we shouldn’t always put everyone in one box. If everyone was happy clappy and loud, it would be tiresome and grating for customers.

On our ‘Delight the Customer’ training, we have an exercise where we send employees on their network to undertake random acts of kindness towards customers – we even arm them with dosh to do this if they need it. What’s fascinating, though, is how completely uncomfortable many folk are at even striking up a conversation with customers let alone doing anything that might verge on delighting them. Almost always it takes us as trainers to take the lead and show them how it’s done, even though they are the ones, rather than us, who day-in, day-out interact with customers.

Anyway, for most of them, it’s shyness and the fact that actually engaging with customers takes effort and confidence, which means that the service that is invariably delivered is minimalist and constrained – with memorable moments being very much the exception. This is where on the job coaching is key and that’s where the role of the supervisor or frontline manager is important. The problem is that, much of the time, the supervisor is more introverted and less customer-focused than the people they oversee. Supervisors hold the key, but more often than not they’re found wanting.

Ultimately, for all our fancy customer service standards and customer-obsessed competency selection processes, we must be realistic. The chances of finding someone capable of living up to this and grinning throughout an entire shift on a cold Monday night at the wheel of a 34 between Walsall and Bilston via Darlaston, or whilst staffing the ticket gates at New Cross Gate whilst marauding Millwall fans pass through after a game, are highly remote. It’s about nudging away to get the best out of those who have the right intent, even if across the course of their eight-hour shift standing on their feet in some freezing cold, hostile location, miles away from any management supervision, they might drop their guard now and then, as we all would.

For the mindless minority with limited, if any, liking of customers, it’s about proper targeted and sustained action. They should be measured relentlessly, taken aside and held to account for their actions. They should not just be sent back for training, but be put on a special, intensive and bespoke course by the toughest and most focused of trainers, then reintegrated into society with the closest and most focused attention from their line managers. And if this doesn’t fix, them then they should depart.


Senior leaders should spend more time properly focusing on those that let high performers down and ruin it for everyone. Soundbites to the good people are easy to do, it’s how the ugly stuff is tackled that is a true test of leadership and management capability.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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