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Influx interview-alex frankel- author- punching in-the unauthorized adventures of a front-line employee

November 9, 2007

In 2004, Alex Frankel took us on a journey inside the mysterious world of brand name development process with his first book, Wordcraft.

In his latest book, Punching In-The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee, Alex examines the world of America’s front-line employees based on his own personal experience. He’s spent the last two years working in frontline positions with the likes of Apple, Gap, Starbucks, Enterprise, etc.

Punching In is published by Harper Business and hits the shelves on November 20th.

In typical Influx Interview style, I sent Alex a few questions via email and here is his response.

1. What was the inspiration for your new book?

When I was about 17 I met a guy who had worked as a UPS driver and he told me all about his job. He told me specifically about how much he had been analyzed and examined by a team of scientists sent from corporate headquarters: They had measured things like how long it took him to walk an average package to someone’s front door from his truck. The level to which they cared about such things intrigued me and from then on I knew I had to work for UPS some day, to experience being the critical front line worker.

Until you “live the brand,” as I  did, you are really taking other people’s word for how they feel. You cannot apprehend what it feels like to work acertain job unless you are wearing the  uniform and living by the rules of a given employer. The subtle, or not so subtle, changes you feel when you put on a uniform and undergo training are extremely informative. For example, the feelings I had when I first changed into a brown UPS uniform and gazed at my reflection in the locker-room mirror were the kind of feelings you could not replicate by simply interviewing UPS workers about their jobs. (I tried doing so.) Subtle shifts are simply not apparent unless you are trying to be extremely observant, as I was.

2. It sounds like you did a bit of a Morgan Spurlock for this, explain how you approached researching the project?

Morgan Spurlock did a great job of being the ultimate customer of McDonald’s. My goal was similar, but different: I wanted to be an employee at five or six companies in the retail space where I could be the face of those companies. I first worked at UPS and then applied at a dozen other companies that I chose based on my personal relationship to them, their popularity in business circles, and their prevalence in the commercial landscape. I applied for and was hired for five jobs in the retail sector and went on to work undercover over the course of two years.

3. Were the companies aware of your plans?

No, definitely not. My project hinged on my working at the various jobs in a completely unfettered and unadulterated manner. I wanted to live the life of an average employee and feel what it was like to wear the particular uniform of a company, train in the way an employee is trained, and then work directly with customers. I knew that if anyone knew of my plans, that the pure qualities of my experience would be compromised. And certainly I did not feel that any company would trust me enough to allow me to proceed with my project if I had asked for permission at the outset.

4. Do you feel brands are missing an opportunity at the front-lines of service and what can they do about it?

Yes, definitely many companies leave a lot to be desired when it comes to the experience on the front lines of service. When you think about it, this interaction–between customer and employee–is everything. This interaction carries the most weight in the minds of customers, but still most companies botch it by hiring the wrong people, training them poorly, and/or not giving their people the tools they need to do their jobs. Companies need to think creatively about these very areas: How can they better attract and hire the best people? How can they create places that employees want to work? These types of considerations do wonders for that critical customer/employee interaction.

5. Do you think Americans have given up on service?

Yes, many Americans have given up on service by finding ways around even needing service. Gas stations are self-run retail engagements. Every time you shop online you are avoiding going to a store and confronting what is often a poor service experience. At the same time, people tend to flock to those few stores or companies where service is strong (The Apple Store, JetBlue, etc.). Unfortunately, though, in many cases we are prisoners to poor service by having no better options.

6. Can you imagine a time when everything is self-service- from the grocery store to the Apple store and won’t that just be better for everyone?

Yes and no. There are many consumer experiences that can be improved through automation. When things like self-checkout at Home Depot tend to work, they are great for customers and companies. But now, more than ever, people are increasingly a strong strategic weapon companies use to attract customers, people are often more important than the service or product a company is selling. In recent years many companies have realized how critical their people are in terms of presenting a cohesive experience for customers.

7. A few months ago, there was a trend of people posting videos on YouTube that showed shoddy looking stores and rats at fast food chains- do you think the thought that everyone potentially has a camera, is keeping retail brands on their toes?

What I found is that the top-notch retailers–places I worked such as Starbucks and The Apple Store–have fairly sophisticated feedback loops firmly in place so that these types of rats-in-the-kitchen surprises just don’t happen very often. Starbucks has a team of roving quality control technicians that come into the stores unannounced and order drinks. They measure things like the weight and temperature of a latte and time their buying experience. Not a whole lot is left up to chance by the companies that value quality control.

Posted by Ed Cotton

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