Internal collaboration is one of the most crucial elements of a good customer service culture, but is often the most neglected.
When an organisation is hit with a poor customer service rating, the temptation is there to pour more effort and resources into improving the outward communication and behaviour of staff. Customer satisfaction (or lack of), however, is not just a by-product of a company’s external approach. Actually, it starts internally, with the way staff communicate and interact with one another.
Instead of just being more overtly communicative with customers, organisations need to pause and take a look at the everyday ways in which people work together. Internal collaboration is one of the most crucial elements of a good customer service culture, but is often the most neglected. If you want to serve customers better, begin by serving each other well. Implementing an appreciative, strengths-based approach is a good place to start.
Take Siemens Wind Power as an example of an organisation that proactively adopted this approach to improve the customer experience. In 2013, I began a long-term project with the Service division of Siemens Wind Power UK (which later became part of Siemens Gamesa).
At the time, the company was struggling with the way its customers perceived it, as is a fairly typical problem of complex companies of the same size and nature. It wanted to improve its customer service experience for the five-year service contracts following the sale of onshore and offshore wind farms.
The organisation had just received a Net Promoter Score of -64, and my work with them was part of a wider initiative to transform this. Specifically, the organisation wanted to improve the buyer experience during the servicing of over 60 wind farms, and change the entire nature of its customer relationships.
What were the collaboration challenges?
One of the main reasons for a fall in customer satisfaction is due to customers not receiving the necessary information and level of responsiveness required. Ultimately, this stems from a lack of internal collaboration between the relevant teams and individuals. At Siemens Wind Power, these individuals were often spread across departments in different countries, making collaboration all the more difficult.
A lot of this came down to relationships within the business - when a challenge arose that required input and action from various different teams, it was a fragmented process, which often moved quite slowly. It required building a network of strong relationships that transcended immediate working circles.
Another strain on customer service practices in complex, multi-faceted organisations, is that they will always come up against challenging operational issues which pull the attention of employees too much in one direction.
One of the main reasons for a fall in customer satisfaction is due to customers not receiving the necessary information and level of responsiveness required. Ultimately, this stems from a lack of internal collaboration between the relevant teams and individuals.
This leads to a deeper issue: a culture of focusing too much on serving the anxieties of senior management internally, and prioritising their needs over the real customer who owns the assets. Having their face turned so much in the direction of senior management inevitably means that front line staff will have their back to the customer.
When this happens, we see a huge amount of focus placed on what is going wrong, and how to help internal leaders feel more reassured, with little attention or reflection paid to moments of great customer service, and how that could be amplified to improve things. Where good practice does occur, it goes under the radar.
What leadership and collaboration best practices were developed?
The customer experience project embarked on at Siemens Wind Power was called “Leadership & Collaboration”, engaging 1,100 employees from a cross section of the entire workforce in a collaborative, strengths-based, appreciative inquiry approach.
In a matrix organisation like Siemens, it was important to take a slice through the company, to encourage collaboration and develop relationships between those who wouldn’t usually interact with one another, but who were all crucial to customer needs.
The first step taken was to train and coach employees to identify, harvest and root cause real stories of good customer service in the recent past, and explore the fundamental conditions that made that interaction a success. Once it became clear what ‘good’ looked like, and the behaviours and policies that made it possible, they could grow more of these conditions in the areas that really needed them.
Senior leaders were encouraged and challenged to pay attention to how they were actually behaving versus how they should be behaving.
To ensure that these stories could be shared and circulated, an internal bespoke social network which could slot easily into everyday working activity was deployed. This meant that sharing examples of good practice was easy and instant, particularly important in the wind business where teams can be scattered across a wide geographical location.
To support this work, senior leaders were encouraged and challenged to pay attention to how they were actually behaving versus how they should be behaving, to enable this work to grow.
They needed to set an example in the way they engage their customer counterparts, and their own teams and counterparts internally. Just as important was the need for senior leaders to change their behaviour to enable staff to focus more on serving each other well, and serving their customers well.
Leaders needed to endorse a more open culture whereby people were able to go out and build relationships in the business, and create the time and space to allow that. They also needed to unblock any major organisational processes that inhibited the team working together to solve customer problems. In some cases, this meant supporting a change in policy and long-held practice – though never at risk to safety or assets.
In raw business terms, the most recent Net Promoter Score for Siemens Gamesa’s wind servicing division is +5, demonstrating an upswing of +69 since the project began. During this period, the company secured more new contracts and renewed more contracts than had been predicted, indicating a significant turn-around in customer confidence.
Internally, the quality of employee conversations and relationships had improved, as collaboration to address challenges was made easier than before. This improvement was reflected externally, as customer feedback showed they had noted a distinct shift in the transparency and focus of the teams servicing their wind farms, and above all the engagement style had shifted dramatically.
The ability to find examples of where good things are happening in customer service, as a way of getting even better, is now ever present at Siemens Gamesa. This type of appreciative, strengths-based engagement work remains pivotal in embedding great customer service in all teams – an approach many industries can learn from.
Put simply, if you want to serve customers well, a large part of the work begins with serving each other well, inside your organisation. Focus on the little, everyday internal interactions amongst staff, and this can have a dramatic impact on external results. A more collaborative, open and engaged servicing team will result in the customer reaping the benefits.
Steve Holliday is a director at Lacerta Consulting, a culture and behavioural change consultancy that works with a range of national and international organisations. Steve specialises in customer orientation, leadership impact, and safety.