Rethinking Communication with Front-Line Workers with Carol Leaman, CEO at Axonify Inc

“Retailers need to understand that the knowledge of the individual dealing with the general public every day, has a very measurable impact on the bottom line.”
– Carol Leaman

People are no longer the commodity that companies may have thought they were previously. As the riptides of market changes continue to shake up the landscape, frontline workers, or the people that are actually delivering on your brand promise, are finally getting the recognition they deserve. On this week’s episode of On Work and Revolution podcast, host Debbie Goodman talks with Carol Leaman, CEO at Axonify, about how to re-think communication with your frontline workers and how massive of an impact their customer interactions make. 

Debbie & Carol dig into:

✓ The tangible impact that frontline workers have on business success & reputation
✓ How investing in training and development of frontline workers has a significant impact on financial results and accident reduction
✓ What employers are doing to retain skilled and knowledgeable employees in the face of high turnover rates

About our guest Carol Leaman 

Carol Leaman is the CEO of Axonify Inc., a disruptor in the frontline learning, communications, and operations space and innovator behind the world’s first learning platform focused specifically on the deskless worker. Prior to Axonify, Carol was the CEO of PostRank Inc., a social engagement analytics company that she sold to Google in June 2011. Previously, Carol held CEO positions at several other technology firms, including RSS Solutions and Fakespace Systems. Carol is a frequent speaker on technology and entrepreneurship, and a regular contributor to leading business magazines. She also sits on the boards of many organizations, both charitable and for-profit, and advises a variety of high-tech firms in Canada.

Helpful Links:

Follow Carol Leaman on LinkedIn

Open for Full Episode Transcript

Open for Full Episode Transcript

Debbie Goodman  00:05

Welcome to On Work and Revolution, where we talk about what’s shaping up in the world of work and education. I am your host, Debbie Goodman and today we have as our guest, Carol Leaman. Carol is the CEO of Axonify, a disruptor in the frontline learning and communication space and innovator behind the world’s first learning platform focused specifically on the deskless worker. Prior to Axonify, Carol was the CEO of PostRank, a social engagement analytics company that she sold to Google in 2011. And she has held several other CEO positions at RSS Solutions and Fakespace Systems. She’s a frequent speaker on technology and entrepreneurship. She’s certainly has a lot of experience in the space. And she’s a regular contributor to various leading business magazines. Of course, she sits on boards of several organizations, and she advises a variety of high tech firms in Canada. And today, we are going to be talking to Carol about the training of and communication with frontline workers, the deskless workers who are in fact, the majority of the workforce, and as Carol says, they are the overlooked majority. So welcome, Carol.


Carol Leaman  01:25

Thank you so much for having me, Debbie. I’m excited to be here.


Debbie Goodman  01:28

How did the concept and idea for Axonify come about?


Carol Leaman  01:34

It really was a situation of a customer led initiative, we had our very first customer needing something to train their frontline workforce, that was very different than traditional learning. And so through that experience, we figured out a way to access that remote, high turnover, widely geographically dispersed employee with knowledge and information that was very specific to their jobs in a way that they wanted to receive it and would pay attention to. And so it was that initial customer use case, that really allowed us to think about how to do that, and then build it, try it, see what worked, and we knew it did. And so we just continued from there.


Debbie Goodman  02:25

I was doing a little bit of research on Axonify. And you know, you sort of look at all the different bits and pieces that are online, I didn’t actually ask ChatGPT to give me a summary just so you know, because that might have been the quicker route. But what I did notice was that there seems to have been, slightly earlier on, an orientation towards a focus on the gamification and the brain science element of the platform. And more recently, more of a shift to perhaps more from a marketing point of view, to focusing on the deskless worker, as a category of people. Share more about that.


Carol Leaman  02:58

In the early days of Axonify, focus, especially learning focus on frontline workers was something so difficult to get our target customers to pay attention to, they just didn’t invest in these people. They considered them high turnover and almost disposable in a way. And so what we focused on, were the elements of the experience that we knew worked to get that employee to actually pay attention to the learning, change their behavior on the job in ways that were going to impact the business. And so we came at it, and really, really promoted the cognitive elements of what made Axonify work, and the whole gamification around, you want to get the experience to be so desirable that the employee reaches out to proactively have it, versus you needing to force training on them. So we did that early on, because the concept of training a deskless worker just seemed to be foreign to people at any level. And then later, we once it became a thing in the market to start to value these employees and invest in them, we shifted our messaging to go with what was emerging in the market as something that clearly people were paying attention to. 


Debbie Goodman  04:27

How much did the pandemic impact or ramp up the need for communication with this group of people? Because I can imagine well, we know, there were so many organizations that all of a sudden were unable to communicate. People were home for a while, certainly during lockdown even frontline workers. So, tell me a bit more about that experience. 


Carol Leaman  04:50

It was pretty crazy. And I think most people don’t understand that retail workers as one segment of frontline typically do not have email addresses with their employer, because they do turnover frequently. So communicating with those employees when they’re not at work is virtually impossible, especially impossible on mass. So we had many customers who overnight had to send 10s of 1000s of people home, and had no way to reach them. except through our platform. We had a feature called broadcast messaging that allowed anybody in the organization to communicate with anybody who had the Axonify app on their phone and broadcast a message to them about anything. We had the CEOs of some large multinational retailers suddenly start using Axonify to be the only way they were able to communicate to 10s of 1000s of people in multiple countries across the globe, with one consistent message about how they, as an organization, were dealing with the pandemic. So we had the feature there, the pandemic immediately accelerated the use of that feature. And we realized there was a lot we could build on top of that, that would really enhance that particular experience. So it was critical, critical.


Debbie Goodman  06:31

I’m curious to know, what was it like to be in the situation where first of all, everybody’s in crisis mode in any event? And then I mean, essentially, you’re a small business, you’re not necessarily geared for Fortune 100 or 500 companies to deal with the, it’s not even necessarily the pace or the scale, it’s just the level of engagement that one needs to step up to. And so what was that experience like?


Carol Leaman  06:59

So interestingly, we were probably the only company, I would say, in the category of our direct competitors, that was built for scale, right from day one. So we had pre pandemic, we already had customers with 500,000 people across the world, in many countries using Axonify. And in fact, we’re in 160 countries, 65 languages. So as we were architecting, the platform, we did it in a way that we knew would allow us to continue to expand and grow and add very, very large, complex customers, and not have the solution break. So we were, I believe the only ones in that position. And it so served us well through the pandemic. So I feel very lucky that we had that, you know, insight early on. 


Debbie Goodman  08:02

Okay, so you weren’t entirely scrambling when all of a sudden you get the phone call from your like top Fortune 100 CEO who says help, and you’re like, God, we’re like, we’re not entirely geared yet. We haven’t rolled out that particular product feature yet. You’re already there. So that’s, that’s extraordinary forward thinking. Kudos to you for having had the vision to see where the product and the offering ultimately could get to. And then, look, the pandemic was tragic for so many of us, but it’s sounds like it was an incredible lever for Axonify. Let’s dig into this group of frontline workers that you’ve described them as overlooked. And yeah, perhaps it may seem obvious, but tell me more about why you use that as a descriptor. 


Carol Leaman  08:50

It really, you know, and this is true, half of our business is retail, for example. So we have a ton of experience with organizations that employ retail workers. But we also have quite a few customers in the call center contact center space, banking tellers, people who deal with the general public day in and day out as part of their role in the organization. And those roles tend to be less valued from an organizational point of view than a salaried, long tenured individual, at what they consider knowledge worker sorts of roles. And, you know, it’s been an evolution over the years we’ve seen, you know, if you think back to the 50s, being a retail worker was actually a career. People went to work in, you know, a very high end, men’s clothing shop, and the individual selling those suits to gentlemen were very skilled, they were highly compensated, they were valued. And they were employed for many years, oftentimes through an entire career. Through commercialization of the advent of faster fashion, offshoring goods and bringing them into North America, those jobs started to be occupied by younger and younger people largely who were doing it on a part time basis. And that shift of mentality of it’s no longer a career, it’s just a stopping point, while you’re in this interim role started to become the thing. And organizations began to treat their employees that way, transient, not really worth investing in, because they’re only going to be here for three or four months, maybe six, maybe seven at most. And so we’re just not going to spend the money. Now, what they didn’t realize is those employees have the biggest impact on your financial result as an organization. They deal with customers, just even simple things like I had this experience where it was Christmas, I had a bunch of coupons, asked the clerk who is checking me out if I could use the coupons. He said no, because the merchandise I was buying was already discounted. And so I remembered, I had something else to pick up, I left, I checked out at a different checkout desk with a different associate, asked if I could use the coupons again. And she said, of course. And so I have no idea which of those associates was actually right. According to the policy of that retailer, all I know is I got an extra $200 off, checking out with that second associate. Retailers don’t really understand the decisions and the knowledge of the individual dealing with the general public every day, have a very measurable impact on the bottom line. So investing in them, making sure they understand the rules, the policies, the promotions, customer service, all of those things, makes a very, very massive difference on financial results for that retailer. So investing in them, to get them to understand those things is so critically important. And we’re seeing that now start to come back that that investment, that desire to treat those individuals and those employees, like you want a salaried employee.


Debbie Goodman  12:50

Right. I mean, I would imagine with let’s just focus on retail for the moment. But you know, what you can certainly buy almost whatever you need online, if you’re going to go into a store, you’re going in either for a specific type of experience or a particular kind of help, or because you want to have touch and feel of the product or for specific reason. If it’s just about convenience, you’re going to do that purchase online. So if you’re going into a store, and you’re going to interact with other humans, in order to make that purchasing decision, you want that that person who you’re interacting with, to be knowledgeable to have a level of autonomy and decision making authority to you know, treat you well. I’m terrible when it comes to customer service, is that I will often walk out of a store, if I feel I’m being ignored, or if I’m not getting any kind of response. And perhaps there aren’t other people who are quite as extreme as me. But it seems obvious that organizations should want to invest I understand the logic of Yeah, well, you know, they’re only going to be around for a few months. So the turnover is so high. But do you have any data or case studies or information on the impact of training in terms of productivity and engagement? For this particular segment of people? 


Carol Leaman  14:04

We’ve got so much data about the benefit, the business benefit, to the organization of training these people well, it is crazy. We have data that ties their knowledge and performance to sales. Knowledge and performance to things like accident reduction. Believe it or not, one of the biggest costs to retailers are medical accidents and injuries that the associates have in their stores and distribution centers. It’s massive. So if you get them to understand you know, not to climb the shelf to get the box at the top for a customer but to actually get the ladder, they may not have that accident. So when it comes to revenue growth, asking the customer if they would like you know as we all do in the coffee shop we you know often have experienced the associate say, Well, would you like a breakfast item with your coffee? So the upselling part of it measurable, measurable relation of knowledge in the heads and in the hands of those associates to the business, that the the organization is looking to achieve – growth in revenue, reduction of expenses. So many case studies that clearly demonstrate, and we use machine learning applied to business outcomes and the knowledge to be able to statistically correlate the two, it is remarkable. And retailers and others call center opportunities and telecom for example, the the amount of money they’re leaving on the table by not appropriately training, the associate is astronomical, astronomical. 


Debbie Goodman  15:50

Now, we know that there has been the most furious war on talent, hiring sales staff, store staff, frontline workers in all segments, whichever one you look at, has been extraordinarily difficult for many organizations. Now, the company is lucky enough to actually hire humans to to do the job. How do they also get them now to do the training, what is in place to get the workers to do the extra bit of the training piece?


Carol Leaman  16:24

So this is where making the experience as desirable as possible in the hands of the employee is so critical. And right from the beginning, we looked to make that experience one the associate had right there, whenever they had a moment of need. Or if there were no people in the store, for example, or nobody immediately around them, they could access it very quickly. And not just learn something, but do it in a way that was very focused on their specific levels of knowledge, and was wrapped in gamification, to make it fun, so that the elements of accessible, fast, fun, personalized to them, were the underpinnings of getting them to want to do it whenever they had three to five minutes a shift. That was where we started. And over a decade, I can tell you that we have maintained that philosophy around learning, because it works. And so instead of hiring somebody, putting them in a classroom and making them watch nine hours of videos, doing it in short, relevant bites that are digestible, interesting, and fun, means the employee wants to come back for more. And building that habit, every shift is something we strive for. And the gamification elements are key to that. 


Debbie Goodman  18:02

It seems obvious the communication piece in moments of hopefully, we’ll never have to deal with pandemic situation again. But should that happen, we’ve got the communication piece down. The training, use case, is clearly there, it’s proven with data. And you’ve got all the stats and the case studies to show that the training piece is critical, important and it works. How else could companies be responding to frontline workers in particular, regarding their desire and need for the kind of flexibility that office workers knowledge workers have found with either hybrid or remote? I mean, it’s you know, we’ve we starting to see organizations or companies grapple with this wanting to provide the kinds of benefits that they’ve offered to knowledge workers, who had previously been in office and are now able to work from home. Frontline workers have got similar needs for flexibility, similar desires for flexibility. Are there any companies responding to this particular issue? 


Carol Leaman  19:04

Yeah, so there are lots of different ways organizations are now looking to enhance that frontline digital experience for the individual so that they, like you said, have similar choice, similar flexibility to a salaried full time worker. And some of the things that are coming to the fore, are things like shift swapping. So having shift scheduling tools that make it super easy for that individual if for some reason, they know they’re not going to be able to make a shift tomorrow, to be able to collaborate with their co workers and potentially swap shifts out. That’s a very real need. 


Debbie Goodman  19:49

How would that previously happen if this shift swapping capability with technology wasn’t enabled? How would workers need to do that in the past?


Debbie Goodman  19:56

 They would need to phone their supervisor. They would need to say, hopefully, if they could reach them need to say, you know, I can’t come in tomorrow, or I can’t come in this afternoon. Often, it’s very last minute. And this still goes on today. And then the store manager, whoever the supervisor is, is suddenly, you know, accountable to find somebody else to fill that shift. So, this is taking care of that need, as among the employees themselves in a way that meets the need of the employer without having to get lots of other people involved. So that is becoming a real benefit to the frontline worker. Another another thing that, you know, has always been true of the salaried worker, are opportunities to grow, evolve progress in their careers, achieve promotions. That’s never really been a thing among the frontline worker population. You’re just, you’re there, you’re expected to leave at some point. And now, because of the difficulty in finding people, that desire to keep those people as long as possible, is so incredibly important. People are no longer the commodity that companies may have thought they were previously. You find somebody who’s going to show up and do a decent job, you want to hang on to them, and make sure they’re trained. And so this thinking about how do we invest in them for the long term, cross skill them, upskill them, give them opportunities to self select into learning paths, so that if an opportunity arises for a manager of a department or a manager of a store, that individual we know their skill set, and we can give them opportunities to grow and stay with us. So I can tell you that particularly in the grocery segment, for example, this has become a very big area of focus for those organizations. They want people to stay. And just the cost of turnover is so astronomical, why particularly the grocery section, I think it’s because turnover and grocery as a segment of frontline is probably the highest of any sort of retail. And so we have a customer, I won’t say who but this customer onboards 6000 people a week, a week, every week of the year 6000 people.


Debbie Goodman  22:46

What happens to those 6000 that they need to be, are they being replaced every week?


Carol Leaman  22:53

People quit, they need to hire 6000 people a week. 


Debbie Goodman  22:57

So they’re like, there’s a revolving door of people who are just churning in and out. So on average, the aggregate is 6000 people. That is those, those numbers are just mind blowing. 


Carol Leaman  23:09

They are mind boggling. We have another customer, it’s 2000 people a week. We have customers, it’s hundreds of people a week, every week of the year. And so if you can reduce that, by 10%, just think about the cost of not needing to hire 600, 200, 50 people a week and onboard them to get them on the floor doing their job. Just the savings of keeping people longer is mind blowing. And so this has become a real trend in market with that hourly paid segment. I mean, it crosses all sectors. I point out grocery because turnover is incredibly high. And so yes, tools, tips, tricks, techniques, to engage them, and train them and keep them long term is a huge, huge thrust right now. 


Debbie Goodman  24:12

Right. Wow, it sounds like this could be the the antidote to the desperate need for frontline workers in all segments, certainly throughout North America, which is where we’re seeing such shortages at the moment, Carol, this has been an absolutely fascinating conversation. I mostly deal with the knowledge workers, the office workers, the ones who are not really in the office any longer, well some are. And so this is a segment of worker population that I don’t often get access to. So this has been absolutely fascinating. Thank you for sharing all of this. I am have no doubt Axonify is just going to go from strength to strength, excited to see what emerges and I’ll certainly watch the continued growth of the company. Thank you for sharing your time with us. 


Carol Leaman  24:55

Thank you, Debbie. Great to be here.


Debbie Goodman  24:57

Bye now. Thanks for hanging around all the way to the end, it would mean the world if you would rate and review On Work and Revolution on your favorite listening app. It helps people know that the show is worth listening to. And so I really appreciate that. Thank you so much.


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