Internal Customer Service Can be Exhilarating…Or Not!
By J. Allen | Originally Published March 14, 2017
What’s the greatest “Unsolved Mystery” in business today? It’s not a legendary creature – a Yeti, Loch Ness Monster or other myth – it’s right there – in front of you! And it’s definitely solvable!
In the years that Masters Alliance has been working with leaders across the globe, we’ve seen it, heard about it, even watched executives scratch their heads about it. These smart, sophisticated leaders make statements like “I don’t get it, everything in our plan has been done, everything’s in place, why isn’t it working as we hoped?” or “We just brought our best product to market, why can’t we get the sales we forecasted?” Upon review of the evidence, we find that they are accurately reporting – they’ve executed against the strategic plan, the product is, indeed, ground breaking. We dig deeper, asking our usually blunt but respectful questions – Why, Why, Why, Why, Why? And at some point- the weakest link is exposed. Ah ha!
It’s the thing that will stop the best company from achieving its ultimate success. It’s the thing that can bring any organization to its knees. And it is the thing your competitors are watching for, and they are ready to take advantage. It is “Internal Customer Service Syndrome.”
OK. You contend that your internal customer service is “average.” From your experience, that is just the way things generally work, given all the interconnected complexities. Let’s look at what “average” produces. Half of your initiatives are delivered on time. About half are on, or under budget. Getting volunteers for new efforts results in many being “voluntold.” Progress / status reviews are painfully void of excitement. About half of your efforts really make a difference with external customers. Very seldom do they make a difference with your customers’ customers.
Internal Customer Service…it’s the glue that holds everything together in an organization. It is how things get done or don’t get done. It is how an organization is fast or is slow. It is how customers think highly of you or are “neutral” toward you. With poor internal customer service, the trend is toward costly chaos; your customer interaction achieves no competitive advantage.
Now we begin to have a definition of costly chaos. Run the numbers in your head. How much does “average” internal customer service cost you? What is the impact on customer satisfaction, net promoter score, internal morale, retention? How many more people does it take to get things done? How much longer does it take? How many opportunities are missed? How long do issues “hang on”? Does this story repeat itself in your organization?
Maybe you have concluded your internal customer service is “above average” or even “quite good.” Things do get done on time, on budget and have a positive impact. Do you really know what goes on in your organization to achieve these results? Do things flow pretty smoothly or is success achieved by “brute force”? Do you see the real picture? Do you consistently work to find out?
Mystery Identified and Defined…Can it Be Solved?
It’s really quite simple – it’s the Internal Golden Rule. How do your employees treat each other? Do they serve each other as well as they serve your customers? Do they “do unto their coworkers as they would have done unto them”? Now – don’t roll your eyes at this statement – think about it for a minute. As an accomplished leader in your organization, how much of your day is spent navigating politics, or essentially breaking up the equivalent of schoolyard fights – that use words instead of fists, and emails instead of shouting matches? How much of your day is spent listening to your team members lobby their positions, convincing you that their team is smarter than the other team? How much time do you spend dealing with perceived politics and turf wars? Now do you understand what I’m talking about?
Imagine getting that time and energy back – then imagine how powerful it would be to give that gift back to your team – even a portion of it! Wouldn’t you rather spend your time with people who are excited, informed, energized and you all feel like you’ve got “something cookin’”? No wonder we call this an “Unsolved Mystery!” The idea of establishing an internal customer service culture is not at all new, and this is not the only article that’s been published on the topic. But our work has shown us a plain fact – it’s the key to all things in an organization – it’s the glue that binds us all together in achieving our vision. It’s the exhilaration of a great day and it’s the reason why the best employees stay. Without it, employees see barriers everywhere they turn, they go home unhappy, and eventually, the best employees leave.
This task may seem nearly impossible – but I’m here to provide you with optimism and a sense of hope! It can be done, there are solutions, ways to do it – I can say that because we’ve done this a lot! We know first-hand about the tremendous freedom that results from recapturing productive internal working relationships. Again, rallying around serving and pleasing the external customer is the key ingredient…it’s almost magical. It is not defensive, it is exciting! Our process helps you actually make the fundamental changes in your organization to make the mindset and behavioral shift.
Q1: “I’ve already spent a sizable amount of time and money on fostering teams and teamwork – why hasn’t this helped the situation?”
We are big fans of working hard to develop effective teams in the most traditional sense. Members of intact work teams need to trust each other, learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, etc. However, traditional team development doesn’t go far enough to build a sense of connectedness that you need to make a difference and significantly impact the organization and its customers. Think Macro vs. Micro – you can have multitudes of highly effective teams, but if they don’t work effectively together, the issues don’t get resolved, the exciting opportunities don’t get discovered or implemented. If various teams don’t focus on making a difference in the marketplace, impacting customers…and do it together…what is the point of the work?
Q2: “How did this happen to us?”
A Large Company View…
Business got tougher a few years ago. Fewer things worked well, and more efforts were frustrating. Teams and groups defended their efforts based on past experience, more than changing to what is needed in a different economy. The “well-oiled machine” actually had some flaws. It is easy to overlook the critical priority of focusing on internal work dynamics and consistent efforts to remove barriers and streamline working relationships – to make noticeable differences with customers. Never waste a good problem or a difficult situation. Everyone in the organization is asking: “Why doesn’t someone do something?”
A Small Company View…
“When we started as a small group, we all got along, we knew each other, we celebrated each other, and we treated each other with respect. Where did we go wrong?”
It’s not so much that you did something wrong, you simply made a common assumption – that as your company grew, and became successful, those “family” dynamics would grow with the organization. It happened because you were appropriately concentrating on building the business. But sustainable success requires that execs “walk and chew gum” at the same time…be in touch internally as well as externally…to be a “noticer.”
Q3: “We are very clear about our values. Why are they not sufficient for successful operating relationships?”
Living values is more than posting them, expressing them, and talking about them. Values need to be part of an organization’s fabric. They need to be used – for recognition, hiring, discipline, and firing. You need to call people out for infringing on or violating a value, including, and especially, senior leaders! An organization always has values. Many times, they are much different than what is “published.” Be bold in protecting the values, and connect them to customers, or watch them change without you knowing it.
Q4: “How will I know when it’s working? How do I measure the ROI on this kind of work?”
You’ll know. Like most sound business strategies – it’s not going to happen overnight and it’s going to take some effort. Here’s how you’ll know: You’ll spend your time differently. Instead of dealing with turf wars and personality issues, you’ll be able to spend more time on positive business efforts. Employee attrition may increase for a bit, but then it should plummet. Employee engagement should go up, and so should your customer service metrics. And given enough runway, these kinds of efforts will help your bottom line. But it starts with a mindset shift – and you’ll see that more quickly.
Here’s the real Return on Investment – it’s growth and competitive edge. Look at your 5-year strategy and annual plan with a new lens. Ask yourself “If our company worked together in the best possible way – what could we achieve? Can we move more quickly, go to market faster, or serve our customers better? If we didn’t focus on the same old issues, and have the same old internal battles, what could we get done?” I’m guessing you’ll start to see the opportunity and the potential ROI of this shift.
It Works. Some Client Examples.
A regional US retailer’s Internal Customer Service Action Team discovered that over 25% of the on-floor people did not like working with customers. And a great number of “back-office” associates were bored and eager to work with customers. Uncovering this unique situation “got the right people on the right bus and in the right seats.”
Result: Increased revenue in a down market, increased margin growth and market share. Listening to the talent and deploying it to greatest advantage – no budget increases, no staff additions, no reorganization disruption.
A significant international software company searched for “unknown” SMEs (subject matter experts) during a multi-country expansion. This led to the creation of the “who does what” tool…subsequently expanded to the “who can do what” tool.
Result: Newly identified talent led to new opportunities, promotions, reassignments and much more impactful market efforts. The resulting atmosphere was “electric.” “I didn’t know you could do that / had that experience / were passionate about that” were frequent comments and discoveries.
At a major defense contractor in the electronic security industry, three teams in a critical function, comprised of individual contributors and first-level supervisors collaborated to significantly improve internal customer dynamics with the organization’s six large business groups.
Result: These three teams quickly identified barriers to working relationship effectiveness, selected the most egregious inhibitors to excellence and productivity, and focused on the ever-present hassles of getting things done. They determined likely root causes (many at the EVP level). With these facts in hand, they held meetings with each of the business group leaders to candidly discuss the situation.
Much to the teams’ surprise, most leaders were open and listened. Some were shocked, appalled and immediately agreed to support a plan of action. It paid off in speed. Speed of new efforts, speed of problem resolution and speed of customer responsiveness.
What You Can Do…
Before you worry about the change for your employees, you can bet they are ready for the change and will celebrate the news of its arrival. No one wants to get bad service, and in fact, no one wants to deliver bad service!
So – are you interested in making the shift? I hope so! Here are a few ideas to get you started on the diagnostics – and of course, Masters Alliance is here to help you dive into this deeper and provide some solutions for your organization.
- Do your teams lack a “clear line of sight” to external customers?
Do they know how their team’s work impacts your customers and your business? In a previous article, we discussed and provided reasons why employees will work harder for the customer than the boss. This also applies to internal customer situations …especially when the work is connected to the external customers. Surprise! It always can be connected!
- Does your organization have nagging structural issues that seem to work against the internal service mindset?
Is it more siloed than collaborative or are there unclear roles and overlap in functions? Is everyone clear on exactly how their team works with other teams to achieve the vision? This point is key – it’s extremely hard to work together effectively as an organization if you don’t know how the functional goals link to clearly stated and agreed to common goals. It’s time to take care of those design issues that you know cause strife between your teams.
- Start looking at your own behavior.
Ouch – this is going to hurt a bit. You are a successful leader who has been rewarded with promotions, salary increases and bonuses. How could this not be working well? Are you modeling something other than a service mindset? Do you look at your employees as a means to an end, or as partners who need your support and guidance? The classic business book, The Servant Leader (James Autry) shows how leaders can share power, put the needs of others first and help people develop and perform as highly as possible. It’s a good starting point. Real leadership begins on the inside with your own commitment to inspire the best in others.
- Assess your leadership team – are they more likely to pit their teams against each other in competition?
Champion-Challenger is a common tactic to “get best result,” but it tends to destroy a sense of inter-team collaboration. Do your leaders treat each other with the respect they want from each other? If they don’t, then the work starts with them. (Uh-oh, do you see that first attrition bump in the future?)
- Look at your incentive, recognition and performance measurement practices.
Do they focus on markets, customers, competitive advantage? Or do you stack employees up against each other via calibrations or rankings? Are employees aware of your practices (officially or unofficially)? Some practices tear apart a unified team – zero-sum game approach causes individual employees to have an “individual win” mindset vs. “we all succeed” mindset.
We Can Help
These ideas are thought starters for you. And it’s a jumping off point of the process. You can see how this work is not as simple as issuing a mandate, or refreshing the posters in the breakroom about “teamwork.” It’s about a process for re-programming everyone in the organization to recognize and purposefully treat each other as customers.
Almost all our client executive teams are greatly surprised as to how much room there is for improvement in their organizations.
If you are interested in learning more about reaching your full potential, unlocking the mystery that lies within your company, contact us – We can help you get started creating an Internal Customer Service culture and help you eliminate those obstacles to success!
Masters Alliance can help bring these tips to life with your organization – we provide the tools and framework to help your team think and lead differently. We’ve helped dozens of our clients implement this new way of thinking in their organizations.
Masters Alliance is a 30-year strategic management consulting firm that has helped more than 120 client organizations in over 20 industries in 13 countries gain a competitive advantage in their market. We help organizations develop and implement unique business strategies that work – faster than our clients ever thought possible.
We help clients achieve significant performance gains from a breakthrough understanding of their customers / patients / clients and markets.