When I ran customer service for a national cellular network in the ’90s, customer service was in a different location from sales, marketing and product development. We were only 250 miles away, but we might as well have been on a different planet. It would have been the same if we were in the same building.
Silos, it seems, are not all created equal. Before I joined the organization, customer service did not have a seat at the “big table.” The management team’s focus was on products, brand and customer acquisitions—not to mention revenue and profitability. In the exec team meetings, the word, “customer,” was seldom, if ever, mentioned. Customer service was a cost center, buried in the sales organization.
‘It also surprised me to find marketing spending gazillions researching customers, when we had thousands of people speaking to customers every day.’
Now, I have nothing against sales people—I was a major account manager for IBM and Wang, and I ran a sales branch focused on financial services that grew 400 percent year on year—but I know that customer service is not sales’ primary focus. To salespeople, customer service is just the defense, functional and, frankly, not as exciting as being out there fighting the competition and winning the business. And of course, marketing was too expansive and superior to worry about anything as trivial as taking calls from customers.
So customer service languished in the organizational backwater, where employee morale was lower than a snake’s stomach. It’s no wonder that customer service people create their own communities. They don’t need the CRM folks; they have each other. And frankly, they get more empathy, help and openness from other customer service folks than they get from their own organizations. When they meet it’s like that scene in Jaws, when they are comparing scars just before the shark attacks the boat. Come to think of it, that analogy is more accurate than you might think.
When I took over customer service, it was a new experience for me and I was amazed to discover two important things:
- Customer service people are more passionate about satisfying customers than any other function. It’s what they do, despite all the pressure of call-handling metrics, overbearing management structures and information starvation.
- Customer service is not a silo at all. Silos don’t reach the ground. They are suspended in midair, and all the errors, inconsistencies and plain dumb things that happen in the silos fall out and end up in customer service when the customer calls. Customer service is the organization’s drip tray. It’s also its weather vane. If you really want to know what customers think about any aspect of the company, ask customer service
Initially, I was not popular trying to bring customer service into the mainstream of the company. I was deemed a disruptive influence wanting to change everything. According to my hero, Tom Peters, this was part of my job description. So I took it as a compliment.
For example, no one from customer service was represented on the product development “committee.” We weren’t even reflected in the extensively defined product development process. Products were launched without our knowledge or adequate training. Networks’ release of calling-line identification on a Sunday evening crippled the call centers for days. The first we knew about it was when customers called and asked, “What are these numbers on my phone?”
So I arranged for two frontline team leaders to become part of the process. They were paid a fraction of the other committee members, but their contribution was invaluable and the other members often deferred to them. No one else ever spoke to customers! It also surprised me to find marketing spending gazillions researching customers, when we had thousands of people speaking to customers every day. So we gave “feedback” on product network issues to the product managers and the network planning team. We also arranged for the product managers to visit the contact center at least once a quarter and nominated contacts in customer service for each product.
The point here is that customer service doesn’t need sales, marketing, IT or CRM. We need customer service. You might think of customer service as the defense, but all great teams are built on a solid defense that provides a platform for the offense to flourish.
It isn’t just the valuable feedback customer service can provide on products, services, policies, pricing, brand, the web site and sales channels. Customers who contact customer service need help, and if that help is provided in the right way, it is the very best platform for “adding value.”
But don’t ever ask a customer service person to sell. Customer service people are seldom comfortable doing that. To customer service, it’s about customers getting more value from the company’s products or services. Suggesting to customers that they take more features or additional products is just a part of the process of adding value. Customers trust customer service people; they do not trust salespeople.
When I was an IT account manager, I always sent in the engineer alone to speak to the customer when a system was running slow. The engineer explained that the system needed more memory, which was very expensive at that time, and the customer always asked the engineer how much memory was required. The engineer told him the level we had agreed on beforehand, and the customer always bought that amount—and sometimes more.
So don’t hug trees; go hug your customer service people. They can help you to join up the dots across the organization. I know from our work that the drive to satisfy customers is increasing the number of gaps and inconsistencies—ironically, the biggest cause of customer dissatisfaction. Customer service people can help you focus where those gaps and inconsistencies are, and, if you tell them what you are planning to do, they can probably prevent them from happening in the first place.
It is often said that no man is an island, that we are all part of a global process and interdependent on each other. Nowhere is that more so than in customer service. Instead of being the drip tray, it can be the glue that binds the organization together to make it stronger and more able to withstand the battle for the hearts and minds of your customers.