Two Words That Will Hurt Your Business’ Customer Experience

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How?  Simply by using two words which should be stricken from every business leader’s vocabulary – “back office.”

This is a term that many executives throw around without regard to its influence on the culture and mindset of their organization.

Here’s the issue:  Creating a work environment that supports customer experience excellence requires getting everyone in the organization to view their role as a critical part of the customer experience equation.  The moment employees start to feel that their work is invisible to the customer, they then lose appreciation for the impact their role has on the customer experience.

That’s an unfortunate outcome, and one that can undermine employees’ engagement in their jobs.  It’s also based on an inaccurate premise, because every job in a company truly matters.  Every job impacts the customer experience, or at least the staff who deliver it.

Regardless of what business you’re in, or the size of your company, there are always just two roles in any organization:  You’re either serving the customer, or you’re serving someone else who does.  This is true no matter what position you hold or what title you possess.

Within every company there is an internal “value chain” – a set of business processes (let’s call them links in the chain) that, together, form a service or solution for the customer.

Everyone in an organization represents a link in that chain.  Even though your link might not be the one at the end of the chain – the one that actually “touches” the customer – every link still needs to be strong and solid in order to create a positive customer experience.

Those final links in the chain represent what are typically viewed as “customer-facing” roles – sales and customer service, for example.  Individuals in these roles need no reminder that their efforts have a very real and direct influence on customer perceptions.  After all, they interact with customers every day, either in person, on the phone or online.

It’s a different story, however, for those individuals who are in supporting roles which involve little if any regular contact with customers.  Examples of those roles might include transaction processors, fulfillment personnel, manufacturing staff, mail sorters, sales support specialists, marketers, business analysts, and legal/contracting staff.

It is all too easy for individuals in these behind-the-scenes roles to lose sight of how their actions influence the customer experience and shape brand impressions.  That risk is heightened when the “back office” moniker is attached to any employees involved in these types of activities (as often happens with less senior, behind-the-scenes roles).

The term, itself, can have a negative connotation for those to whom it is ascribed (business leaders who use the phrase rarely ask rank and file employees how they feel about it).  It can imply a degree of inferiority, relegating less important and perhaps less polished staff to some “back office” wasteland where they safely perform their duties, shielded from any direct customer interaction.

Beyond the term’s unfavorable connotation, however, is an even more serious problem – its portrayal of any job as one which is seemingly dissociated from the “front office,” where company and customer connect.

That’s a recipe for customer experience disaster, as it robs these individuals of any sense of customer-facing purpose that would help inspire them and inform their behavior.

If you want to create a work environment that encourages customer experience excellence, consider the following actions:

  • Never say “back office” again. Strike this term from your organizational vernacular.  It shouldn’t be uttered in hallway conversations or town hall meetings.  It shouldn’t appear in reports or memorandum.  And it most certainly should never be embedded in any position title or job description.  (Search LinkedIn for “Service and Back Office Operations” and you’ll start to get a sense for how pervasive this misguided approach really is.)
  • Declare all roles to be either “customer-facing” or “customer-impacting.” Not all employees are customer-facing, but they are all undoubtedly customer-impacting.  That’s the key message which needs to be conveyed to anyone in a role formerly characterized as “back office.”  No matter where an employee sits in the internal value chain, their work influences the customer experience.  Mail sorters, for example, never speak with a customer.  However, if they don’t nail their part of the value chain (promptly delivering incoming customer correspondence to the right area), then the quality of the resulting customer experience suffers.
  • Broaden the definition of “customer-facing.” Even if employees don’t have direct contact with a consumer of your company’s products/services, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a customer.  Their “customer” may be an internal one – perhaps a colleague in another department, or a teammate just a few steps away.  Encourage employees to think in terms of the external and internal constituencies they serve.  Then, suddenly, everyone becomes customer-facing in some fashion (i.e., either serving the customer, or serving someone else who does).  That’s a good mindset to promote, because behind every great external customer experience lies a great internal customer experience.

It’s widely accepted that our thoughts shape our language.  We think of something we want to communicate, and then our mind translates that into the words we vocalize.  Less appreciated, however, is the converse concept – that language shapes thought.  This is the notion that the words we use actually influence, if not constrain, our view of the world.

To see how this works in a business context, consider, for example, how an employee’s view of their job differs when they’re called a “food service clerk” versus a “barista,” or a “transaction processor” versus a “service specialist,” or a “staff recruiter” versus a “talent scout.”

These contrasting terms can evoke very different feelings in an individual about their role and its importance, potentially shaping their on-the-job behavior in more (or less) desirable ways.

Words matter, so labeling a role or an entire unit as “back office” can inadvertently create a culture that is anything but customer-centric.

If you’re striving to achieve customer experience excellence, then it’s time to retire the “back office” phrase and start watching your language.

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