CMOs and their marketing teams might be usually in charge of developing their organization's brand, but it's not them who live and breathe it every day, and see firsthand how customers respond to it.

No, that's the frontline teams like sales, customer support, or just about anyone who has direct interactions with your customers. With these experiences, Chris Wallace, co-founder and President of InnerView Group, believes frontline teams have valuable insights to share with their marketing departments, which is where the importance of a two-way dialogue comes into play.

Prefer to listen? Check out Chris' appearance on the CMO Convo podcast 👇

Chris' background

Today, we're talking all about having a two-way dialogue between marketing departments and front-line teams.

This is going to be absolutely essential to any kind of business. Anywhere where there's a customer, and you have a team facing that customer, and it's going to be important to have that dialogue. But before we get down to discussing how that works, how about you introduce yourself, Chris? Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.

Sure, I've been a salesperson pretty much my entire career. With Sales and Marketing, there are obviously crossovers between the two. I've held roles where it was sales only, and I've held roles where it was sales and marketing.

Having been a salesperson, I have a sales sensibility, so I draw on a lot of our experiences as a salesperson. The value proposition of our company is founded on this idea of there's people out there that represent you.

It's not enough just to share some product specs, or talking points with them, you really need to understand what's in their head. They are a channel that influences the success of your brand, your message, and your marketing program.

It’s about engaging those folks in a way where you're trying to convince them and really equip them to be evangelists as opposed to just getting to the point where you’ve checked a box.

Really lean in and treat them like a channel. Everybody on our team has sales experience. Every single person on our team has sold before. We really do carry the torch of the salespeople, and help marketers really build that bridge to their frontline teams.

We're in a bit of an echo chamber at CMO Alliance. We get a lot of marketing perspectives and marketers talking about what they need to be doing with sales and what sales needs to be doing for them. But it's gonna be great to have your perspective on that.

Who are your frontline teams, and why are they so important to brands?

It’ll be great to get the sales perspective on how marketing can help them rather than us kind of throwing around lots of hypotheticals and stuff like that. It's gonna be very interesting. We're talking about frontline teams today. But that doesn't just mean sales, it can mean other things. It can cover things like customer support, as well. Having a two-way dialogue with them is very important, right?

We look at the frontline as anybody who interacts with the customer in any way, shape, or form. From our perspective, I think one of the positive byproducts of what we've gone through the last couple of years with the global pandemic has been this intensified focus in recognition of frontline employees.

This is about the work that they do and its relevance and importance in terms of the day-to-day execution of businesses. It’s about servicing our customers to suit their needs. I know that people fall into the trap of thinking that customers have fallen in love with their digital platform. Customers don't fall in love with a digital platform, they fall in love with the way they're treated.

This is accomplished by human beings. It can be a salesperson, or it can be a customer service person. It can also be a retail associate. We do a lot of work with businesses that have either technicians that go into customers' homes, installers, or delivery people.

When you think about the full gamut of the customer journey, the customer journey isn't just how they interact with a digital ad or how they interact with your e-commerce buy flow. The question is, did that person who left the product on their front porch deliver it in the right way and treat it with the proper care? It encompasses a lot more than just the sale.

And it's incredibly crucial. It doesn't matter how great your brand is, or how great your advertising is, if a customer has a bad experience with a salesperson, they'll take their business elsewhere. It doesn't matter if it's B2B or B2C.

It can just take just one negative interaction for them to decide they’re going to some other different brands. There are ways that CMOs and branding and marketing can help reinforce that and give direction to how frontline workers are supposed to present themselves.

That's because branding isn't just about the logo, it's about how your company presents itself to the world. That is what we're talking about when it comes to a two-way dialogue.

A lot of times when folks ask us what our skill set is, we say we both have the experience and the tools to help you translate what your brand is, and who you want your brand to be. And the brand needs to live through those behaviors.

I talk a lot about brands, but one brand that we haven’t talked about enough is USAA insurance. It's just a brand where they've outlined what their commitment is, who their target market is, and they are just maniacal about every single one of their touchpoints, making sure they show up in the right way for those people.

When you talk about that idea of how it shows up, it really is in the behaviors. How do you behave in a way that is consistent with how we want to be perceived as a brand. It is those behaviors that will show up in the interactions. The interactions, like you said, are the ones that make that indelible imprint on the consumer in terms of their perception of the brand.

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Opening up a two-way dialogue with frontline teams

But at the same time, in the CMO role, you can't just be dictating to the frontline team, "This is how you should be acting" because they're the ones who know what the customers respond to. It’s a two-way dialogue.

You can establish a meeting of the minds with how the frontline workers present themselves as part of the brand. A brand shouldn't be dictatorial, it should be a shared experience within a company. You're building the brand, and you're sharing the brand with the world. Is that the right way to think about having a two-way dialogue?

Yeah, I think there's a couple of things when we talk about two-way dialogue. We look at it as the brand message that has to be shared. So, you have to share what you're doing from a brand and marketing perspective with your frontline teams because they're the messengers.

So, if you think that your digital banner ads are your only messengers, you're missing a really important channel of your marketing strategy. It’s about really communicating with your frontline workers. It’s about listening and hearing what they’re saying.

Yesterday I was on a long flight. And I went through this tool called a brand transfer study. The brand transfer study is the relay mechanism. It enables the two-way dialogue, it is the relay mechanism to get insights.

It gathers those frontline insights from the team serving customers, and brings it back up to the teams at corporate. They're going to do two things. They're going to say, is the message reaching them the way that we want? If not, we have to improve that.

And the second question they’re going to ask is, are we seeing things and hearing things from our customers that might help us adapt or change our strategy or make an adjustment? I was reading through brand transfer studies from a variety of different brands, and I was looking at verbatim comments.

Something that occurred to me that I think is really interesting: It's the people who work for you that know your strengths and weaknesses better than your customers. They become a mechanism to help you anticipate where things need to change or where processes need to change.

I think about feedback from your frontline as really an anticipatory engine. It’s a way to really say we're going to get out ahead of this. We are identifying a crack before it becomes a major rift or a major problem with your customers.

It’s about listening to them not just to hear what they're hearing from customers, but hearing how our weakness could expose us. In this case, we need to fix this, address this, otherwise, we're not going to remain competitive in the future. You wouldn't believe how astute and smart and engaged frontline teams are.

And we hear this from our clients day in and day out when they see these readouts. These are good little ideas, why have we not been gathering this all along? So, when we talk about the two-way dialogue, you're going to need to get the message out there. But when you get the message out, they're gaining feedback on what they think and what their attitudes and perceptions are.

That point about the frontline workers knowing more about the strengths and weaknesses of the brand than the customer is great. Whether the customer has maybe a little issue with the brand or a way that the messaging is being relayed, that’s probably a minor annoyance.

That's like a drop in the ocean in terms of their brand experience. But if you spread that across all the customers who experience that level of negativity, that's a lot of negativity. With a frontline worker, they'll likely interact with enough customers, and they'll gain that knowledge. When you think about it in terms of scale it could be a very major annoyance.

I actually have a quote going to read to you verbatim from somebody. This is a home improvement brand here in the States. And this is the quote back from a frontline salesperson. This was part of a much larger comment I pulled out. This is incredibly astute, strategic thinking.

This is not somebody making $500,000. This is somebody out there on the frontlines. “Having a customer sit through the slow, antiquated process we used to sell and close a deal is embarrassing and does nothing for our credibility.”

Some harsh words.

But this is the thing. The great thing about the comment was that this is not the only thing that this person had to say. They said positive things too. This is somebody who's taking the time to think strategically and provide valuable input.

And one of the things that's really interesting is that early on, when we built the brand transfer study, we got a lot of skepticism from marketers. They said that people are just going to tell us what they think we want to hear, they're not gonna actually give us candid feedback.

I don't know if you know anything about salespeople, but they’re willing to speak their mind. All the responses are anonymous. That same respondent, at the end of his response said, “I'm glad you've offered this platform, because real changes start at the bottom. And I truly hope the powers that be will listen.”

When you think about sharing insights, they are recognizing that the customer experience we deliver is not meeting the customer's needs. With no portfolio, no fire alarm, or without any type of feedback, you're not going to be able to adapt to your customers' needs as quickly as you need to. And the warning signs can come from your frontline teams.

Employee retention through listening

That point about how appreciative they were about having the opportunity to share their ideas, says to me that this kind of process is going to really help with retaining talent and attracting talent.

If you're listening to the people who work on your brand, you're gonna keep them under the brand for longer, because they feel like they're having some influence on the direction that the brand's going. They're gonna feel more invested in it, which will also mean they'll be putting more effort into their work as well. So it seems like a major net plus, having this kind of dialogue open.

Everything you just said has played out every time we hit on one of these indented engagements with a client. We work primarily with larger B2B, B2C businesses. It has played out every single time that people will say to us, “We're very focused on ROI for our clients. We're really focused on what can help you get products to market more smoothly.”

Your frontline teams are gatekeepers. They're the messengers, but they're also gatekeepers. Recognizing that is key. So, we focus on ROI and how this is going to help you get to market more successfully.

But the question always comes up, does this help with employee retention too? And the answer is yes, it absolutely does. Think about it. Ask somebody what they think of the brand that they represent or how they feel about that logo that's on their shirt or their hat or on their briefcase? How do they feel about that logo? What does it mean to them?

Do they have pride or belief in that brand? If you ask them that and then you build messaging on top of the things they already love about the brand, they're going to love it more.

And then they're going to deliver those behaviors. They're going to deliver on that brand promise more effectively. If you have in turn made them feel better about the brand that they're working for, and made them more effective in representing it, they're gonna stay longer.

This is not hocus pocus. It's not magic. It’s really about marketers taking the time to understand the frontlines as a true marketing channel, or as a segment of their marketing strategy, not just as an operational part of the process.

Treat them like a segment of your marketing strategy, understand them and try to win them. That's not hard for marketers, that's what they're great at. That's what marketers are great at. It's just about changing your thinking a little bit and changing your orientation to the frontline audience. That's so key. But, lo and behold, marketers can hold the key to driving better employee retention. It's not a stretch, we've seen it happen time and time again.

And with the Great Resignation still in full swing in a lot of places, this is going to be more important than ever for brands to take into consideration. So yeah, it’s not just a means of ROI, it's a means of keeping your valuable workforce, especially if they're more passionate about the brand as well because they feel like they're invested in it.

What can happen if we don't have the system in place? How do you go about actually setting up the system? Is it like a town hall meeting kind of thing? Do you have a reporting system in place? How do you open up these dialogues?

It's really a market research process. We really do bring research rigor to it. We're just gathering the voice of the internal customer. And most of the brands that we work with have big enough teams, so we're talking about significant sample sizes.

I think 15,000 plus frontline employees have responded to brand transfer studies over the last four years since we launched it. We're getting great sample sizes. It's a scalable, structured approach to gathering frontline insights. It's not an ad hoc Survey Monkey that gets sent out. A lot of times marketers will say, “I have a hunch, and I'm going to create a three or four-question survey monkey and send it out to the field and get their feedback on it.”

What that ends up doing is probably going to confirm their bias and what they're looking to ask, and it just doesn't have the same rigor and that's fine. Any kind of feedback is good. But what we bring to it is a level of structure that allows you to gather it in a scalable, quick, consistent way over time.

So, the idea is not to just look at it as a snapshot just confirming that one hunch, but how can it be something that you track over time? The second thing about the way we structure it is not only can we help our clients benchmark within their own company, but how can you benchmark against other companies in your industry as a whole.

The structure that we bring to it really does try to bring discipline that can help us roll this up and put the data in the context for companies that makes it even more valuable for them. So the structure and the rigor really is the differentiator to this. It’s allowing employers to give their employees this mouthpiece. They can do so in a way that they can look at these insights, and, on a truly consistent basis, it becomes part of their dashboard.

And then once we have the insights, and we do stuff with them, do we communicate the feedback, or do we keep that kind of under wraps? Or do we celebrate the heroes who have brought things to our attention?

You said that the whole process should be anonymous. But what if there is a single really great idea that comes from a frontline worker? Should we open up the curtain to celebrate that person, show the good work that they're doing for the company? Would that encourage others to do the same?

It's an awesome question. It really is. Here's what I would say. The process that we're going through is not the mechanism to use for that. I would not encourage people to look at it in terms of one single idea. That's not necessarily what we're going for here. You're going to see things that are useful, but I will caution against building strategies off of a verbatim response.

What we're doing is really about the scalable roll-out. This is your group as a whole, right? This is representative of your employee population. There are themes and trends that we're trying to get people focused on. I'll use an analogy.

When a marketer leaves corporate and goes out and spends three days riding with salespeople, and they come back to corporate, they're firing all over the place. “I heard this, we got to change that, customers are mad about this..” You can't go change your entire marketing strategy based on some anecdotal feedback.

So, while the anecdotal stuff is important, the anecdotal stuff provides you with ideas or areas for further investigation. That would be the way I would typically use it. But to take it one step further, we did a program with a client of ours that is a brand transfer study.

We actually did a brand transfer study to remeasure on major product lines that they had. They wanted to do something with their field to drive some engagement. We communicate upfront with the frontline teams. We want to help you serve your customers the best you possibly can. Your input is critical to helping us serve you so you can serve them.

By teaming up in that way, we kind of soften them up and get them excited. And then when we start to get to the implementation of a program, then they're ready for it. They are expecting us to set those expectations. What we did with this particular claim in the banking industry was we created a contest, a structured company-wide retail branch network.

They did a contest whereby two branches paired up. They had to generate a list of ideas for how to better serve the customer. They whittled that list down and nominated one idea. And there was a bracket-style tournament where they competed with another two-branch cluster.

And then they whittled it down. And it went through this entire process. Ultimately, there was a winning idea. And the company is committed to implementing that single idea across the entire retail organization.

So, that idea that great ideas can come from the frontlines is absolutely true. But don't take verbatim comments and try to use them for a massive overhaul.

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The scale needed for effective dialogues

So, we're not looking for that one core big idea? Assumably there needs to be a certain scale to it. You need a certain number of frontline workers in place to be able to get the kind of data necessary. Is that correct?

Yeah. And you've got to vet it out. I mean, you just have to vet out the ideas, because there is a huge, huge bias when it comes to frontline teams. That's why we try to collect a statistically relevant sample size.

I've done focus groups before where you stand in a room and you say, “Okay, what do customers think of this product? What are your customers saying about the product?” What will happen is that people will typically respond with a piece of feedback that is recent and sticks out in their mind. My point is, if that happened recently, and they got one piece of customer feedback that was negative as anecdotal feedback, that can dominate the way people think.

You could be acting on something that is just a snap, or a one-off as opposed to what the true trend is.

So, if we're trying to avoid this kind of recency bias, what kind of timescale do we use? Is it something to be done in a month? Are we talking about a year-long process?

So, it’s evolving. To be completely honest, our process is evolving, whereby, right now, the way that it works is we're doing these single event research projects. But what's happening is we're doing these single projects and then we are doing re-measures over a period of time. Typically, that re-measure period would be somewhere between three to six months afterwards.

You want some time for something to be able to change so that the data you get back is relevant. But we're moving to a model. This is from feedback directly from our clients. We have a group and advisory group of clients who are providing us feedback, saying, rather than do everybody every time and do it once every six months, or 12 months, let's start doing smaller chunks of the population.

That will still be a representative sample. We're doing it monthly. But now we're able to track longitudinal data. We're able to track the perceptions over time. We can have a monthly dashboard, and we can really do a health check on our channel of how the message is being received, or what the perception of the product is, whatever it is they're measuring.

Right now it is more kind of that six to 12-month cycle, but we're going to be increasing the frequency of that. We’re just using the data collection methodologies to our benefit because most of these organizations are big enough that it’s more than enough of the sample size.

A short cycle could probably be very, very useful in the SaaS marketplace for startups. When is it early enough to start talking about this? When is the right time to start talking about these two-way dialogues?

Should you start thinking about this from day one? Or is there a certain critical mass you need to reach first before you start being able to really see an effect from this?

I think organizations of any size need to be doing it. It just depends on what the mechanism is. We talked to a brand that was growing quickly. There were 45 people, and the approach that we took was just a little heavy for them.

It wasn't designed for a 45 person company, it was designed for organizations that have larger teams. Now, one thing I will say is, we've worked with some brands that are small teams but have huge distribution networks.

It could be an organization where you might have 30 people on your team. But if you go to market through distributors, or independent sales reps, or brokers and things like that, you could find yourself in a spot where it's definitely worthwhile.

We have a client who is a luxury goods manufacturer, and their sales team is only about 16 people, but they have over 1000 preferred retailers that they go to market through. Those retailers are the face of their brand to the actual consumer, so we gather their feedback.

Just because your company's not big doesn't mean that your distribution channels aren't big. I would encourage people to think about that. Any size organization needs to be thinking about these things early on. It really comes down to when we show up in front of a customer, are we delivering a consistent value-based message every time?

Working with third-party frontline teams

So you'd include third parties within this? How does that work? How willing are third parties to get into this kind of process?

So, I'll go back to what I said before, it all depends on how you message it. You have to be good at how you frame this up. But you can say to somebody, “We want to do the best job we possibly can. We want to be best in class in supporting you and representing our brand. You are part of our family. We need your input to make sure that we can support you the best we possibly can. We want to be the best in class.”

If you frame it up that way, you can get people to support your brand and be willing to share their feedback. In that instance of the luxury goods manufacturer, I think it went out to 900 different retailers. I think that we got a little over 200 responses. The respondents represented 130 different retail locations.

We have found as a best practice that we are offering some sort of light incentive. It might be a gift card. It might be a small little token, or something like that. It’s just to grab attention. But they're not doing it for the incentive, it's just a way to grab their attention, get them to open the email. We're finding ways to drive engagement around taking them. But if you frame it up, you're going to get your third parties to step up and respond.

That could be extremely useful, because it's all well and good when it's salespeople who only sell your product. But if they have options for different products, you need to know why they aren't pushing to sell your product over another competitor's product.

Is the logo not attractive? Is it something to do with the messaging behind it not attractive to you? That can be extremely valuable. How do third parties provide feedback? How do you feedback to them in reverse?

That's one of the things we ask in the study. I think it's important to point out that these studies take between seven and eight minutes to complete. You're not talking about something that's a tremendous investment of their time. It's really been honed down to be able to get a lot of input in a short period of time.

But one of the things we do ask is to be very specific. The question that we ask is to help improve or increase your confidence in representing the brand or product. What types of support do you believe would be most valuable to you? And we're doing a little bit of a media study from them by asking what types of content they believe would be supportive.

And we've done podcast series, where sales reps can consume the content going place to place to interactive, ebooks, and other kinds of interactive tools for them to help support their conversations.

It's really to listen to them and find out what they think might be valuable to them. The second piece is to push the envelope a little bit. If you're going to deliver content to them, deliver content that's different and interesting. We've created a graphic novel series for brands where we've turned their brand into a superhero.

And we've distributed electronic versions of this. This graphic novel is almost like a comic book that tells the story of how you know what the value is that the brand is bringing in the marketplace.

Push the envelope and come up with some fun ideas. Marketers need to look at this as a segment of their marketing population. You're coming up with creative ideas to deliver content to your customers. These are the folks that have such a huge impact on consumer decisions.

What products they're going to buy, what the margins are going to be, all those types of things, the frontline teams can help make that decision with the customer.

So, treat them like a segment of the marketing population, and come up with some interesting stuff. That's what marketers are great at; this is not the hard part for marketers. It should be the fun part. But they really need to push the envelope and come up with some better stuff.

Definitely, definitely, that's a great, great call to action right there.

The golden rule of two-way dialogues with frontline teams

Let's finish up with one ultimate golden rule when it comes to this kind of process. What should marketers be keeping in their minds when they're thinking about a two-way dialogue with frontline teams?

So I'm going to steal a piece of feedback from one of our clients. The question is, am I doing this to help understand how my marketing strategy can improve? Or am I doing this to understand where my messages are misaligned and I need to fix my sales team's perception of the product? Is it about me getting the message to them in a more effective way? Or is it about me understanding where my strategy might be broken? The answer? Yes, you should open your mind to looking at it in both ways.

And I will say that when we originally built the brand transfer study tool, we expected that it was going to be primarily the downstream path, which is how can I make sure that my messages aren’t misaligned? How can I make sure that it's not a game of telephone, and I don’t have the message game fragmented?

We're finding more of our clients are looking at it as a tool to better understand what's happening in the trenches to guide and shape their strategy than it is just about getting the frontline teams to say the same thing consistently.

So, my piece of advice would be if either of those is valuable to you, recognize that there's a way to kind of get both of them and take both of them as a real opportunity. See them both as a real opportunity.

This is not a check on your work. It's not a check on whether or not you're being effective. It's not a report card. It is truly unlocking data that resides in the heads of frontline teams that marketers just simply don't have right now. And it's an opportunity for them to make better decisions about how they get product services to market by tapping into it.

How are you interacting with your frontline teams as a CMO? Any thoughts on the process Chris laid out for us here? Join the conversation on the CMO Alliance Community Slack channel!