Alex Frankel|Undercover Marketer #3

If you are just joining us, this is the third (and final) post in a series where we are digging deep into Alex Frankel’s PUNCHING IN: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee.   (You can play catch-up by reading the FIRST POST and the SECOND POST.) Since PUNCHING IN reads more like a cultural studies…


If you are just joining us, this is the third (and final) post in a series where we are digging deep into Alex Frankel’s PUNCHING IN: The Unauthorized Adventures of a Front-Line Employee.   (You can play catch-up by reading the FIRST POST and the SECOND POST.)

Since PUNCHING IN reads more like a cultural studies book than a business book, some of us might struggle to apply Frankel’s observations in a business setting.  Mark Lasswell, deputy books editor at the Wall Street Journal, sure did struggle to find business-applications from PUNCHING INIn his review of Frankel’s book, Lasswell writes, “Mr. Frankel’s observations are, of course, essentially meaningless: A few days or weeks spent in a low-level job might result in lots of impressions, but such forays simply cannot produce much informed analysis.”

While Lasswell found Frankel’s observations "meaningless," I found them anything but meaningless. I found lots of lessons business geeks like us can implement in order to better connect with employees, who in turn, will better connect with customers.  Below are five such lessons…

“UPS used that tagline [What can Brown do for you?] in everything from recruitment advertising to prime-time TV ads, reaching both internal and external audiences.  By extolling the importance of the organization to the world at large, UPS gave its employees a rallying cry, a connection to the brand, another reason to want to be part of UPS.” (PUNCHING IN, p. 12)

Business Lesson #1
A great advertising campaign can inspire employees far more than an internal memo ever could.  Frankel illustrates this with how the UPS branding campaign has impacted the employee culture at the company.  I also know from experience when front-line employees see or hear an ad campaign from the company they work for, they feel a sense of pride along with a motivation adrenaline rush.  And for an upstart company, when front-line employees see they are advertising, they feel more secure about the company they have chosen to work for.

“There was no doubt in my mind that the [UPS] uniforms we wore had a galvanizing effect on the workers. I felt a slight, almost magnetic tug when I walked by a coworker similarly dressed, even if we had never met.” (p. 27)

Business Lesson # 2
Don’t under estimate the power of a killer uniform.  Many times the uniform of front-line employees is an afterthought for businesses.  Shouldn’t be.  A uniform has the potential to jazz-up the spirits of employees or deflate them.  Don’t go the cheap route with uniforms for front-line employees … go the chic route.  Make them look good so employees can feel good when they put on their workday uniform.

“Part of what interested me about the companies that relied on front-line employees was the methods they used to decide whom to hire.” (p. 52)

“The Container Store fills its ranks with just the kind of people who would, without prodding, buy what the store sells because they love the stuff.” (p. 76)

“Interviewing and hiring at Gap was quite easy … never during Gap’s interview was my passion for Gap products evaluated.  I wasn’t convinced that this was necessary for employment, because Gap needed to hire scores of workers with the approach of the holiday season.” (p. 120)

Business Lesson #3
Don’t hire people for the ‘right now.’  Hire the right people now.  In the annual Fortune “100 Best Companies to Work For” rankings, the Container Store is a top-ten mainstay.  There’s a reason for that which goes beyond the fact they pay front-line employees very well.  The Container Store self-selects its employees.  Frankel talks about how they want to “hire only die-hard customers” to become Container Store employees.  Despite trying, Frankel wasn’t hired at the Container Store.  He failed to impress the hiring managers at the Container Store because it was obvious he lacked a passion for organizing stuff.

Gap is struggling these days from a financial perspective and a brand relevance perspective.  Hiring “anybodies” and not impassioned people certainly plays a role in Gap’s continued struggles.

Most businesses today are satisfied with hire anybody to work the front-lines.  Big mistake.  Major lost opportunity.  In lots of businesses, it’s the front-line employee that has the most contact with customers.  Yet, not enough businesses pay attention to this.  All throughout PUNCHING IN we learn the best practices and worst practices companies are following in hiring for its front-line positions.

“Forget changing the store design adding new cuts of jeans—employees like Moses were Gap’s only hope of Salvation.” (p. 135)

Business Lesson #4
Evangelical employees can perform miracles. While Frankel has few positive things to say about his work experience as the Gap, he was able to spend time with a Moses, a Gap front-line employee fanatic.  Moses is a believer in all things Gap and he brought that belief with him every time he talked with a customer and a fellow employee. 

Gap is trying lots of things to turn the company around.  They’ve tried adding a new business unit, Forth & Towne.  (It failed.)  They’ve tweaked the merchandise assortment.  (Hasn’t worked.)  And they’ve tested a new store design.  (Never made it out of test phase.) 

As Frankel says, maybe Gap should spend more of its time and money designing a better interview process than trying to design new concepts, trendier clothes, and better store layouts.   That way, the company would have more front-line employees like Moses who could, working together under the unified belief that Gap Rocks!, turn the company around from both a financial performance and brand relevance perspective.

“To attract employees, you need something to offer them, and that certain something goes under the different names of a brand, a calling, a corporate culture.” (p. 204)

“Many front-line jobs are ones that job applicants choose by matching themselves up with the company’s culture, and those companies that promote their self-selection process are often able to better serve customers. (p. 204)

“Big Jim at UPS, Moses at Gap, Zoe and L.J. at Enterprise, Erika at Starbucks, and Leon and Marco at Apple.  These were the believers who dominated their retail or service environment and had the most to teach a new recruit like me.” (p. 202)

The Business Lesson #5
Every business needs a few “Culture Key-per” employees.  These are employees that totally believe in the company and are evangelists for the company on-the-job and off-the-job.  These are the employees that, to Alex’s point, can have the greatest influence on welcoming, teaching, and inspiring new employees. 

What’s with the odd “Culture Key-per” moniker?  Back in the day at Starbucks, there were a few store managers that took it upon themselves to be the protector and promoter of the Starbucks culture.  To identify themselves as keepers of the company culture, they wore a necklace with a symbolic key.  They were the company’s “Culture Key-pers.”  Any company would be fortunate to have such dedicated and inspired employees.

read PART ONE  |  read PART TWO