How to be effective at front-line operations

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This past weekend many of you probably enjoyed a long Independence Day holiday. Not everyone had a long weekend; many people still had to work while others enjoyed time off. Front-line workers were still on duty keeping us safe, protecting our freedoms, and helping “mind the store” so that the rest of us could shop, eat, and play. Although I had to work a little over the weekend, for the most part, I got to enjoy family time and even some quiet reflection.

Last week we explored the Declaration of Independence and what the Spirit of 1776 means in 2024. I’d like to finish the theme by turning our attention to the activities that put those words of Independence into action. The words were bold, but the actions that followed were even bolder. When our great country declared Independence on July 4, 1776, direct combat operations had already begun. After the Declaration, front-line combat operations escalated dramatically.

What are front-line operations?

In the military, front-line operations are where soldiers directly engage with the enemy. Sometimes the front line is well-defined, and at other times it resembles guerrilla warfare, where things aren’t so clear. Regardless of the ambiguity, the front line is critical for both offensive and defensive operations. Operating from the front line requires bravery, quick thinking, and effective communications. When I was in the Army, we were often told our mission was to “shoot, move, and communicate.”

In business, front-line operations refer to direct interactions between a business and its customers and critical business partners. These operations include customer service, sales, and support. Both business and military front-line operations involve potentially high-stakes direct engagement that can significantly impact overall outcomes. We’re going to focus on front-line operations in business, where team members are the face of the company, representing its value and brand in every interaction.

Examples of front-line operations in business:

  • Customer Service: Handling general inquiries, questions, complaints, requests, and feedback regarding products and services.
  • Sales Interactions: Engaging potential customers to listen to their needs, propose solutions, and close new deals that benefit the customer and the business.
  • Technical Support: Assisting customers with technical issues or questions related to a product or service.

If there’s a front line, then it has to be supported by back-end operations, “aka supply chain.” Back-end operations support the front-line by handling administrative tasks, data management, logistics, and IT. Examples include processing payroll, managing inventory, and maintaining IT infrastructure. While back-end operations ensure that the company runs smoothly behind the scenes, front-line operations directly influence customer satisfaction and brand perception. You need both front-line and back-end operations to be successful in business, but oftentimes front-line operations are more stressful. Why is that? Because it’s mostly about dealing with people and all of the good and bad that comes with that.

Sometimes being on the front lines means working during a holiday weekend. Our dog Loki looks on while I research a problem for one of our high-profile web support clients from our cabin on Lake Hartwell 7/7/24. Photo/Joe Domaleski
Sometimes being on the front lines means working during a holiday weekend. Our dog Loki looks on while I research a problem for one of our high-profile web support clients from our cabin on Lake Hartwell 7/7/24. Photo/Joe Domaleski

I believe in front-line leadership. An effective leader should position themselves where they can best lead. In business, a leader needs to lead by example and not hide in the background. For me, that means staying directly involved in sales and customer service. Over the years I’ve learned a few things about operating from the front-line.

A leader has to be able to be client-facing. Leaders who hide behind others are not true leaders.

Some tips for being effective from the front line:

  1. Focus on the goal: Whether it’s making a sale, answering a question, or solving a problem, it’s essential to focus on the goal. A lot of distractions occur on the front lines. Don’t let the “fog of war” cloud the way.
  2. Stay calm and composed: Handle high-pressure situations with a clear mind. It’s hard to not get excited about a tense situation, but expressed frustration rarely solves problems.
  3. Listen actively: Seek to understand what’s going on and what needs to happen. Oftentimes, you may get conflicting information and have to use discretion to sort things out.
  4. Communicate clearly: Use clear, concise, and positive language. This may not be easy when the other party is not communicating clearly. Repeat back what was heard.
  5. Be proactive: Anticipate issues and address them before they escalate. This comes with experience, and the only way to develop that experience is to get involved.
  6. Maintain a positive attitude: Believing that something can be done is half the battle. A positive demeanor can diffuse tension and build rapport.
  7. Document and follow up: Here at my company, we always take meeting notes and send them back to clients to record what was discussed. This helps build consistency and ensures that we accomplished the goal.
  8. Document and learn: We also keep records of issues and resolutions for our team. It helps our staff learn and improve. It also comes in handy if we need to refer to it later when someone’s memory is less than perfect.
  9. Set a sustainable pace: One of the most important tips is to pace yourself when getting involved in a potentially long-running front-line situation. It’s exhausting to be on a long phone call, video chat, or meeting. More than once I’ve politely told someone we can either talk about a problem or we can spend time on doing the work to solve a problem. There is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to discussions (and this is coming from a guy who likes to talk).

Being on the front lines can be exhausting. Leaders should rotate team members and shifts so that no one gets overloaded. It’s especially important that a leader rotate off the front lines so that they don’t get fatigued and make fatal errors. Although it’s industry dependent, a good rule of thumb is to not allow someone to work more than a 12-hour shift on the front lines. There are exceptions to that for the military, fire departments, and other emergency / essential services.

Some risks from staying on the front lines for too long:

  1. Burnout: High-pressure environments can lead to stress and burnout. It’s important to have shift changes and set realistic pacing goals when someone is “holding down the fort.” No one likes to be alone on the front line.
  2. Miscommunication: Misunderstandings can escalate issues. Left unchecked, miscommunications can lead to other negative consequences. This is why I believe it’s best to tackle issues head-on and not “ghost” someone by walking away from an issue.
  3. Negative interactions: Handling difficult customers can be challenging. Customers are not always right, and some people just don’t want to be happy. I fired a client two weeks ago because they decided to use inappropriate language with my team members.
  4. Inadequate support: Lack of support from back-end operations can hinder effectiveness. When someone is handling a front-line situation, they need to be able to count on their teammates for support.
  5. Reactive approach: Being constantly reactive rather than proactive can reduce efficiency and effectiveness. It’s a fact of life that some people don’t plan and expect there to always be someone on the other end ready to help. They don’t mind transferring their poor planning to someone else and making non-emergency situations urgent. Don’t be that person. Emergencies can and will happen, so save the urgency for truly important matters that can’t be avoided. If you’re on the receiving end of a steady stream of avoidable “emergencies” it’s okay to call a timeout and reset the expectations.

One of the things I enjoy most about running a small business is being able to operate from the front lines. For those who know me personally, I have a hard time sitting still and enjoy being where the action is. A strong front line can empower your organization to reach new heights. You’ll learn more and grow faster by being able to effectively operate from the front lines. A weak front line will adversely affect your organization and may imperil its future. Being effective on the front line requires a blend of skills, strategies, and a proactive mindset.

Investing in front-line leadership and training pays off in the long run, creating a team that is skilled, confident, and proactive. Effective front-line operations bridge the gap between an organization’s goals and the customer’s experience. I believe a leader should prioritize the importance of clear communication, active listening, and maintaining a positive attitude. Make a commitment to prioritize front-line excellence. Whether in a business or military context, the front line is where the action happens, and being prepared can make all the difference.

[Joe Domaleski, a Fayette County resident for 25+ years, is the owner of Country Fried Creative – an award-winning digital marketing agency located in Peachtree City. His company was the Fayette Chamber’s 2021 Small Business of the Year.  Joe is a husband, father of three grown children, and proud Army veteran.  He has an MBA from Georgia State University and enjoys sharing his perspectives drawing from thirty years of business leadership experience. Joe is a recipient of the Peachtree City Rotary Club Business Leader of the Year Award for 2024. Sign up for the Country Fried Creative newsletter to get marketing and business articles directly in your inbox. You can connect with Joe directly on LinkedIn for more insights and updates.]