“It’s not my fault!” the assistant practically wailed. “She never gave me the paperwork!”

The poor woman was almost begging me not to be angry at her, and to put the blame in its rightful place — on the boss who hadn’t provided the paperwork that should have been ready for me.

It was clear that she had been in this situation numerous times before, and that, unfortunately for her, previous customers had not responded with patience and forbearance.

This bit of drama occurred in a doctor’s office. But I’ve seen the same kind of scenario play out many times, as sales support reps try to cover for their field salespeople or administrative staffers try to answer for the failings of senior execs.

When the Frontline Is on the Firing Line

It’s irresponsible to leave customers in the awkward position of having to reassure the staff person that everything’s okay and they’re not upset when everything is not okay and it would be completely reasonable to be upset.

Most frontline associates want to do good work. We put them in a terrible double bind when we create conditions in which they can’t help their customers or support their superiors. That makes associates feel personally disempowered, and like failures. It’s tough to keep showing up every day under those kinds of working conditions.

And it’s so bad for the brand — even if your organization’s product or service is of high quality, and the original delivery of that product or service was successful. If the related administrative processing causes a disruptive, uncomfortable customer experience, it creates a breach of trust; over time, even the product or service offering can take on a negative halo.

Use Structure and Process to Eliminate the Blame Game

Low-level staffers shouldn’t have to take the hit for the failings of their superiors. Don’t let the frontline be blamed for implementation or performance errors they can’t possibly control, and don’t push and squeeze them into frightened, servile behaviors. It’s leadership’s responsibility to fix this.

So find ways to help even extraordinarily talented professionals or senior execs do better, because internal accountability issues can have negative impact on customer experience and the rest of the organization. Figure out structures that support the correct behaviors, and develop and enforce those behaviors through performance measurement and feedback mechanisms.

In the short term, before corrective action has fully taken hold, at least give those human shields in the frontline something better to say:

  • “I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, I haven’t received your paperwork yet. Let me track it down and we’ll get this handled for you.”
  • “I’m sorry, Anastasia. I know you’ve been waiting patiently. I’m going to see if I can get some help from our billing/shipping/custom/etc. department, and we’ll get those forms out to you promptly.”
  • “I wish I could make this happen more quickly for you, Ms. Smith. Would you like to speak with [the senior person] directly?”

The Right Operating Procedures Benefit Everyone

It can be very challenging to obtain compliance with infrastructural or administrative requirements from senior execs who don’t feel bound by standard operating procedure. But for your organization’s overall performance and success, this needs to be done.

What looks to the senior exec like a small thing, a nonessential, can ruin customer loyalty in what would otherwise be a high-value customer relationship. When Yelp and other rating mechanisms are so easily available to every customer, patient, and client, doesn’t it make sense to rebalance the situation?