Customer Service Starts With Leaders

GREAT CUSTOMER SERVICE is critical to business success — loyal customers are the ultimate competitive advantage.

Many companies espouse that they provide great customer service, but few deliver. The inconsistency often stems from a failure to model it internally. The quality of customer service that co-workers provide to each other invariably shows up with outside customers.

Sadly, not all co-workers treat each other with the same kind of respect and care that they treat their customers. Perhaps you’ve heard the relationship advice of, “Treat your spouse/partner as if they were a guest in your home.” With co-workers (not unlike spouses), there are times we forget we are all rowing for the same team!

Challenges, conflicts and turf wars between co-workers from different company groups or departments are often a result of conflicting goals, budgets, resources and priorities. There are many examples: sales vs. finance (or service), human resources vs. operations, or information technology vs. any group depending on them. The differences between most internal company groups are often astounding in objectives, activity and the skills required to be successful.

Many company units have opposing perspectives and motivations. Take the common tension between “service” and “sales.” The service people want ownership of their jobs without the oversight and “butting in” of their demanding sales counterparts (who put the pressure on service when they identify customer relationships are at risk).

One has the technical experience to fix the product properly, the other has the interpersonal skills and understanding to develop and maintain customer relationships. Each operates in different worlds — it’s no surprise that their differences and dependencies create conditions that foster friction.

Internal infighting often escalates and is emotional. But it most often ends the same, with participants retreating back to their corners, where the battle, roadblocks and unresolved core systemic issues continue. Senior executives are often buffered from the battles below them, but the dysfunction between the groups is often felt by almost everyone else in the organization (and ultimately by the customer). If not addressed, this evolves into company culture with significant consequences (talented people get frustrated and leave, or key customers just go away).

To get rid of the “not my job” company culture, senior leaders need to help workers see the big picture, provide unifying goals and reward team achievement (so a co-worker’s request from another department is viewed as an opportunity to help a team member out and meet overall company goals vs. an “irritating interruption”).

Most employees simply don’t understand the priorities, day-to-day challenges and motivations of other departments (an underlying cause of the common “turfdoms” that plague many organizations). Feuding co-workers aren’t focused on collaboratively resolving the needs of the external customer. The fault for all this infighting often lies with senior leaders. It’s their responsibility to create a culture of united vision, understanding, accountability and teamwork.

As a coach, I often hear managers complain about the “personality” problem of a team member (usually presented as “so-and-so is difficult to work with”). Sometimes this is true, but more often than not, what I find when I dig deeper is the presenting “personality” concern is often a result or symptom of a greater systemic issue. Often the person deemed “difficult” turns out to be at the mercy of another department that isn’t being responsive and is demonstrating pent-up frustration at a culture that lacks internal customer service accountability and/or the inability or willingness to change.

What to do next:

  • Senior leaders need to foster an internal culture of great customer service and accountability. This requires solid sponsorship from the top down, where all managers are on the same page of providing great customer service to each other (remember, what gets measured is what gets done).
  • Survey your internal customers and find out if you are meeting their needs. Hold “debriefs” and postmortems following project completions. Target internal customer improvement.
  • Provide training for workers to develop healthy conflict resolution and feedback skills.
  • Make sure feuds are addressed; provide help to identify differences and options to effectively resolve them.
  • Find ways to bridge departmental gaps. Host social and team events to boost morale and understanding between groups. Promote teamwork across departments by creating teamwide goals. Reward individuals based on team success.

Demonstrate gratitude to co-workers who go the extra mile for you — like those IT support people who resolve your computer crisis! Just like external customer relationships, internal customer relationships require “maintenance” to foster teamwork and trust.

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