Smoothing Interdepartmental Interfaces For Improved Service Delivery

By Graham Williams, Centre-ing Services (centserv@iafrica.com)

It is now common knowledge that excellent customer service works from the inside out. Before an organization can properly interact with and enhance its relationships with customers, it has to get its internal ducks in a row. Competent, empowered and willing employees, working in the right motivational environment, and supported by sound business processes and enabling technology, are those who provide the best service to customers—external and internal. When this service habit is well entrenched, then internal service between departments and employees is of the same high standard as, and fosters external service.

Measuring and maintaining the right levels of responsive, reliable and empathetic external and internal service delivery and ongoing learning for continuous improvement is a key challenge for organizations, and can of course involve addressing one or more of many elements such as:

An issue that keeps on recurring in many organizatios is that of insufficient co-operation between departments within the organization, resulting in less-than-optimum external service delivery. Typically, what happens is that someone will call a meeting, at which there is discussion about procedures, rules and roles. Often, the departmental representatives at the meeting carry a "silo mentality" into these meetings, follow an agenda of defending their turf and actions and of expressing willingness to co-operate, but nothing really changes on any permanent sort of basis.

Each of the above elements listed above has a greater or lesser role to play in breaking down the "silo" mentality and getting buy-in to a world-class and consistent application of superior customer service. In addition, a simple yet powerful model that, if properly applied, dramatically improves the way in which departments and individuals partnership within organizations to achieve superior service, is:

The process model works like this:

Perceptions

Perceptions, feelings and beliefs that members of one department hold about members of another departments ("clan-think"), whether or not founded on fact and experience, are nevertheless reality to those members. It is not uncommon for example to find that members of Finance view Sales staff as being fond of being in the limelight and irresponsible when determining credit-worthiness of potential customers. Customer Service agents often think of Finance staff as being stodgy, over-cautious, nit-picking. HR people are seen to have 3 rules that invariably result in their saying "no" to reasonable requests: "This is not within policy"; "This will set a precedent"; "We do not have the budget".

IT staff are often viewed as being loners, out of touch with the reality of business, seeking more power and control because they have the inside-track to the latest technological developments. And of course the enmity in many organizations between Production and Marketing, or Sales and Service is legend. Customer Service centers receive their fair share of resentment: they may enjoy direct, frequent contact with customers previously "owned" by Sales, arrange order scheduling and deliveries that were done by Storage and Transportation, vet customer credit until now the prerogative of Finance.

A good learning experience is to bring members of these departments together, using competent external facilitation to explore their perceptions of each other and themselves, to build new understandings, to lay the groundwork for mutually-beneficial future partner-shipping towards a common aim.

Expectations

A next step is to identify those business processes and tasks where there is an interface between departments and that exist for direct or indirect delivery of satisfaction to external customers. Then jointly examine ways of relieving internal delays, errors and frictions, using this as the basis for drawing up "service contracts" between departments (or individual members of departments). These service contracts are in turn based on expectations that address both task performance and relationship behaviours. They need not be formal, but should be jointly reviewed from time to time.

Measures

I always encourage participants to design measures that capture both the task and the relationship elements of their contracts, provide the stimulus for ongoing improvement based on relevant learning, and have everything to do with what equates to real value to customers (external and internal). Task measures revolve around hard things like speed, accuracy, quality, consistency and reliability. Relationship measures address things like perceived responsiveness, courtesy, empathy and confidentiality. Task and relationship measures can be quite easily combined into a simple, single metric.

Skills development

Possessing a measurable set of task, relationship (and learning) components of the partnership between departments provides the means to identify and profile competency deficits based on customer-focused business processes, rather than on traditional job descriptions. Quite often, skills needs are uncovered in relationship areas such as the developing of shared values, effective communications, and various aspects of thinking, feeling and acting with regard to cementing firm relationships based on respect, trust, feedback and disclosure; and on taking responsibility, making decisions and solving problems. At a level deeper than knowledge and skill, the process has proved to be powerful in terms of changing attitudes, negative self-concepts and motives, and over time internalising a service ethic.

Review

Periodic review, not just of performance against service contracts, but to identify fruitful areas for learning, of business process improvement needs, and of competency development needs, is required in order to "close the loop" and to ensure that the entire model becomes a process, a habit. This becomes an important part of establishing a service culture. The process also carries benefit for the deeper harnessing of diversity across a number of levels, not simply differences between functional departments.

During this process of establishing the basics of co-operation and teamwork, groups invariably uncover wider organizational needs that need to be addressed, and these usually fall into one or more of the broad elements listed at the beginning of this paper.

The purpose of the process is not to create "warm fuzzies," but rather to confront the co-operation issue firmly and realistically, to enable the employees to see positive value in difference, and to accept that:

The process is relatively simple to apply, with competent facilitation, and gets right to the heart of improving customer service from the inside out. Learning experiences during the perceptions, expectations and measures stages, and confidence and pride gained during the skills development and review stages, contribute to a discernible change in atmosphere and to an infusion of the fun element. And as experts say, high performance teams seem to have a better developed sense of humour and more fun.

 

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