Employees who deal directly with the public are valuable players in building a customer-focused organization. Their potential, however, is often overlooked. Only a tiny fraction of customer complaints and suggestions ever reaches top management’s attention.

To tap this motherlode of suggestions and ideas, companies must set up processes to make internal communication easier — and they must invite frontline employees to pass along what they hear.

That’s been the goal of Blue Mountain Resorts, a ski resort about two hours north of Toronto. President Gordon Canning and his vice-presidents regularly run meetings with frontline employees to ask: “What are our customers telling you?”

The feedback is recorded and posted on bulletin boards for all to see. Issues and opportunities that arise from these meetings are put on management meeting agendas and relentlessly tracked until they’ve been acted upon or proved unworkable.

Input can come from many sources: from busboys noticing uneaten food (they’re expected to ask the customer why); or from bar servers receiving repeated requests for a particular snack that’s unavailable.

These steps have improved customer satisfaction dramatically — to the extent that Mr. Canning got a standing ovation from the resort’s members at the annual meeting.

Vancouver-based Finning Ltd., is another company that has taken the opportunity to involve frontline people in eliciting customer feedback. Finning, the world’s largest Caterpillar dealer, has implemented a complaint management system that makes employees the eyes and ears of the organization.

“We’re located in a number of small communities across Western Canada,” explains Ron Clark, general manager of branch operations. “Many of our customers are friends with our employees. They play ball and drink beer together.

“In the past, when customers mentioned a service or equipment problem, most employees couldn’t do much more than show some empathy or apologize for it. Now we’ve given them a process to bring those problems forward and have them dealt with.”

Once a particular complaint is voiced, it is recorded and added to a data base that pinpoints deeper problems in processes or systems that need attention.

In any company, frontline employees are not just important sources of customer feedback — they play direct roles in raising satisfaction. Research consistently shows that customer and employee satisfaction are intertwined. You seldom find happy customers being served by unhappy employees. It doesn’t take an organization psychologist to figure that out.

Customer service, especially service that delights and astounds, is voluntary. Employees decide whether to follow strict company policy, or make a little exception for a customer’s unique circumstances. They can decide whether to call customers by name, or treat them as more files to be managed, more calls to be handled, more mouths to be fed.

Going the extra step to take care of an unusual request is often optional. The degree to which employees make those decisions in favor of the customer, depends upon the environment they are working in.