The fiasco that was the first month of Heathrow’s Terminal Five is a salutary lesson for any company introducing a new product or service. 

I sympathise greatly with the customers that have been delayed, lost luggage and generally experienced a level of service that few would wish on their biggest enemy but my real sympathies are reserved for another oft overlooked group – the staff.

Commenting to the BBC on the fiasco that was BA’s commencement of operations at Terminal 5, a baggage handler highlighted the lack of training given to staff, saying “quite frankly, how are we expected to help customers if we are not helped first?” 

Whether it is baggage handlers and check in staff at Terminal Five or call centre agents, your people’s interactions with customers make them a vital resource. 

When things go wrong, it is the front line people that get in the neck. Senior managers may be wheeled out to proffer apologies to the press (before being whisked off to avoid awkward questions from disgruntled customers) whilst front line staff face the results of their management day in day out. 

How these staff respond shapes the opinions that customers form and the decisions they make.

A good response, one that leaves the customer satisfied and feeling valued requires four things:

Staff must have the skills and knowledge to do the job competently. They may not have received the right training, have the necessary qualifications or be up to date in their field. They often want to help but just can’t. These friendly incompetents are frustrating to deal with. They have the will but not the skill.

Even more annoying are those with the skill but have an attitude that makes Attilla the Hun look friendly. They can help, and do, but do it in a way that makes you feel like you are intruding on their angst. Their attitude spoils your day. 

People cannot do a good job without the correct and functioning tools – like a baggage system that works. Without these, the very best skills and attitudes are stretched, often to breaking point. Well designed feedback can help managers identify areas where investment can improve the customer experience but listening to staff is a close second. There are many reports that staff warned managers of the inadequacies of the systems at T5 weeks before the opening.

That brings us to the fourth requirement. Staff need the support and respect of their managers. Immediate managers are the biggest influence on the morale and performance of teams: it is why dealing with middle managers is one of the biggest challenges in corporate change. 

It is no coincidence that the motto of one the UK’s best leadership development centres, the Army’s Royal Millitary Academy at Sandhurst, is “To lead; to serve”. The best leaders and managers understand the need to earn the respect of their staff through their deeds not just their words. Their power comes from what they do for their staff, not simply the position they hold.

The UK Customer Experience Awards seeks to identify those companies that consistently deliver a great customer experience, either on-line or off-line. 

It is no coincidence that the winners always (and without exception) place the needs of staff at the top of their agenda. 

They respect them by being honest with them about the competitive challenges they face and the strategies they pursue. They provide them with the tools they need to do the job and with colleagues that can deliver and give them honest and constructive feedback. They listen to and act on their views and ideas. 

The end result is that by putting staff first and customers second, they build organisations renowned for their customer focus. 

Two BA executives, the Directors of Operations and Customer Service recently parted company with BA. Most gripes from staff are founded on a real concern for the company and their customers. 

Whilst it is senior heads that roll when things go badly wrong, it is the front line staff that get in the neck from disgruntled customers. Perhaps if the executives had listened to their staff a little more, they would still have been colleagues.