Interview: Author Alex Frankel

frontImageThis interview is a follow up to my review of Punching In by Alex Frankel. You can read the review here.

Alex Frankel is a journalist by training, but to write his book, he embarked on a two year journey as a frontline employee at a variety of companies ranging from Apple to UPS.

He talked to me about a little bit about his experiences on the front lines.

Question: What company surprised you the most?
Answer: UPS was the company that surprised me by being a truly vibrant workplace, not the cold sterile factory I had envisioned before I started to work there. I found a strong corporate culture that seemed to flourish from the bottom up, as opposed to top down and people who were incredibly loyal to the company and to their jobs.

I approached the project with the misconception that all frontline workplaces (whether Starbucks or The Container Store) were all looking to hire people from a similar talent pool. But what I found, once I started working at these frontline retailers, was that someone working at Starbucks and someone working at Enterprise Rent-A-Car are very different people. And the companies seem to know that they are not drawing from one vast talent pool of people looking for retail jobs generically, but they are hiring specific groups of people who fit their companies.

Question: What job did you like the least?
Answer: The place where I fit in the least was at Gap where the lack of focus of the larger organization was palpable to even the lowly sales associate that I was. When I walked into the store on day one as a new hire there was nothing tangible I could feel or get excited about.

Gap was the worst job I had because there was nothing in the job I had—sales associate—that made me really care about the job or the products we were selling. And because of this it was a boring job. If you are counting the minutes (and the seconds) until your shift is up, you know it’s a bad job.

On the other hand, I did feel a sense of excitement working at UPS and this was certainly heightened by the time of year during which I worked, the holiday rush.

Question: What do you think made the UPS culture one that you could associate with most personally?
Answer: Each of us is hardwired with a set of character traits that we bring with us to any job we hold. For me, those character traits include an interest in being active on the job (running around doing something instead of passively sitting at a desk or behind a counter) and also an interest in being organized and in doing something that, to me, felt worthwhile. Another person might feel more at home at Starbucks serving drinks and waiting on customers; to them that pursuit would no doubt feel more worthwhile than delivering packages.

Question: What company had the highest quality employees most consistently?
Answer: That’s a difficult thing to judge. The UPS drivers I worked with were the most loyal and by and large, worked for the company the longest. A UPS driver often drives for 10 or 20 years. You rarely see that kind of loyalty in most frontline work environments.

Starbucks stood out as a place where staff may have left our store, but they were often headed for another Starbucks in another city as opposed to leaving the company completely. The workers at the Apple Store were a passionate crew and each person had a wealth of knowledge he or she could share with customers.

Question: If you could work at any retail company as someone on the front lines, where would you work?
Answer: I’d choose UPS.

Question: Now that you’ve worked on the front lines, what tips would you give to retail and customer service executives? What can they do to ensure that front line employees are happier and deliver better service?
Answer: There are many points I could make. One would be to try to sharpen hiring techniques so as to better hire those applicants that are most passionate about a given frontline workplace and are best matched to work therein. Most companies fail to probe the level of an applicant’s true interest in a product or service.

Also, companies should do a better job at tapping into the insights generated by the workers on the frontlines. I found few to no ways to pass on the insights I had as a frontline worker. Allowing me to do so would have provided companies with great new insights into customers and also would have made me feel important and as if I was contributing to a larger cause.

Question: At any of the companies, did anyone suspect you as a journalist?
Answer: No, this never came up.

For more reading, you can check out an additional interview I did with Alex on the Demand Satisfaction! blog. He was interviewed there because he is speaking at Customer Service is the New Marketing in February. (You can register at that conference and use the code SUBL to get 15% off.)

Image courtesy of Alex Frankel.