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How to motivate frontline employees

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Just because you ask cashiers to collect email addresses from customers doesn’t mean they will. They might not cross-sell products like you ask them to either, or even embody your brand promise of customer service.

Motivating your frontline employees— i.e. cashiers and customer service reps—to support your business goals can be a struggle. You might consider taking a strict compliance approach or offering one-size-fits-all rewards, but neither “solution” solves the real problem. At best, those strategies are a bandage.

So why is it so difficult for certain frontline employees to follow protocol? And what can you do to motivate your customer-facing workers?

First let’s examine two behavioral drives that are commonly found in successful frontline employees: patience and extraversion.

Frontline employee customer service rep

High patience: the key to success as a frontline employee

There are four key factors that determine workplace behavior, and one of those is the patience drive. Patience is the drive to have consistency and stability.

Employees with a high amount of the patience drive crave a consistent work environment and are happy to perform routine tasks. They’re methodical in their work and process-oriented: they like to do things by the book.

Employees with a low amount of the patience drive crave a flexible work environment and need freedom from repetitive tasks. They have one speed—fast—and they like to have options when it comes to how they do their work.

Frontline employees do work that’s repetitive in nature, and they need to follow scripts and clearly defined processes. While workers with high patience will thrive in this role, workers with low patience will struggle to color within the lines.

High extraversion: the “nice to have” added bonus

Another of the four factors that determine workplace behavior is the extraversion drive. Extraversion is the drive for social interaction with other people.

Employees with a high amount of the extraversion drive connect easily with others; they crave chit-chat and social banter. They have an easy time inserting a question like “Can I get your email address?” into the natural rhythm of a conversation.

Employees with a low amount of the extraversion drive take a while to connect; they prefer to work with facts rather than people. They might stall or skip asking the question altogether, wondering if it’s too forward—or if the customer will decline the request.

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In addition to high patience and high extraversion, any employee who has direct contact with your customer must be courteous, kind, and caring. Customers can smell a fake a mile away—you need genuine people who truly embody these qualities.

The fix? A shift in manager mindset.

It’s hard to fit a square peg into a round hole—and it’s hard to motivate an employee to do a job they’re not behaviorally wired to do. Yet you need your frontline workers to capture customer emails and cross-sell products to reach your business goals.

You can spend countless hours trying to cram those square pegs into those round holes—or you can take a different approach. According to Tom Riggs, a Certified PI Partner and CEO of MindWire, things get a lot easier when companies hire the right employees for the job, play to their strengths, and empower them to do their best.

Riggs said, “Stop with your management approach of, ‘Let’s think about our worst people and how we prevent them from screwing up.’ Instead, start arming your leaders to understand how to get and keep and enhance the good folks you have.”

two employees with headsets

Here’s a three-step recipe for building and retaining a dream team of top-performing frontline employees:

1. Hire frontline employees who are a great behavioral fit for the role.

When hiring a cashier or a customer service rep, the first step is to define the behavioral traits that are needed for success in the role. If you’re using The Predictive Index, this is as simple as creating a Job Target in our system.

Over the years, we’ve collected thousands of data points from business leaders who’ve used the PI platform to create Job Targets. In fact, more than 19,000 hiring managers set a Job Target to hire a customer service representative, and close to 2,000 leaders set a Job Target to hire a cashier. What were the most desirable behavioral traits that showed up time and time again?

You guessed it: high patience and high extraversion.

“You can get someone who’s wired in a way that even though it may not be their dream job for the rest of their career, their behaviors are going to drive them to be courteous and kind and caring,” Riggs said. 

Next, have each candidate take a behavioral assessment. To create your interview shortlist, simply look to see who matches the Job Target.

While skills can be taught, behaviors are innate. This is why getting the behavioral piece right is critical to ensuring job fit.

2. Give your managers tools to develop and retain your top performers.

When you hire for behavioral fit, your managers can then conduct training to fill any skills gaps. For example, all new hires should be taught how to ask for an email.

As Riggs said, “[A frontline employee who’s extraverted] is quite capable of saying to someone, ‘You know what I’m going to ask you next, right? Oh yeah, I’m going for your email. Do you know what we do with that actually? Why it might be helpful?’”

Teach that script to someone less comfortable talking with customers and it might come off as awkward. If you have an employee who has high patience but low extraversion, have your managers teach them a different script—one that’s a bit less cheeky.

What if you have an employee with low patience and low extraversion? Training won’t make a big difference. “You can train them until the cows come home. They’re not going to get good at [delivering] that or any other message,” Riggs said.

It’s important to note that one-size-fits-all management does not workSuccessful managers must be able to differentiate between what motivates them personally and what motivates every individual who works under them. This is where your people data insights from your behavioral assessments come in handy—they tell you how different people like to be managed.

When you give your managers access to a talent optimization platform like The Predictive Index, they can use the relationship guides to tailor their coaching and mentoring—all while becoming more self-aware of their own workplace behaviors. (As we learned in our people management study, 99.9 percent of employees said it’s important for managers to be self-aware.)

3. Empower your frontline employees to make some decisions.

Another piece of the puzzle is giving your employees the ability to make decisions, like when not to ask an already irritated customer for her email address.

“The reason organizations take discretion out of the hands of frontline employees is they don’t trust them, and they’re trying to manage to avoid mistakes,” Riggs said. But empowering employees by giving them permission to tweak the script when the situation calls for it makes sense—and can improve outcomes.

“If I can describe it in my own words, in my own way, and in my own style, the likelihood that I take ownership of it, get really good at it, and that it works, goes up a lot,” Riggs said. 

Moving your underperforming frontline employees into new roles

Now you need to figure out what to do with your under-performing team members. Provided those employees aren’t coming from a place of malicious intent, consider making lateral moves to new roles that require a different set of behavioral drives.

For example, your underperforming cashier may not be a natural when it comes to following a script, but is he a whiz at numbers? Can he add up a customer’s shopping tally in his head faster than the cash register can issue a receipt? Is his cash drawer always balanced to the penny? You could have the right employee in the wrong job. That’s bad for both you and him.

customer service rep at desk

Here’s the bottom line: People who enjoy their jobs are more likely to put forth discretionary effort to go above and beyond minimum requirements, increasing productivity and—ultimately—your profit.


Erin is a PI alum and former PI content marketing director. Her claim to fame? She's the only Erin Balsa on LinkedIn.

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