Customer service shouldn’t operate in a bubble. It is the public face of the company, and therefore needs to reflect all the values and knowledge housed within the organisation – and if the service team isn’t aligned with the rest of the company it will provide a disjointed experience for the customer.
It is also the touchpoint that gets the truest picture of how well customers are receiving services, products and the brand message.
This means that the modern customer service department should not only provide support, but should also act as brand evangelist for the organisation - driving positive word-of-mouth and even sales - and also as data gatherers, feeding first-hand customer feedback into the business to drive change.
So it is disappointing – if not entirely surprising – to learn that many organisations, and many departments, are failing to capitalise on the potential benefits of customer service because it is marginalised and disconnected from other departments.
The sales department is a case in point. Sales is a unit that could benefit greatly from greater collaboration with their service peers, while at the same time, service needs to be aligned with sales to ensure that there is consistency of experience.
Paul Beesley, senior consultant and trainer at Beyond Theory, notes: “We tend to think of organisations as having heads and hands. It’s no good if the head's thinking one thing and the hands are doing something else. Without the customer service department and sales department having both joined-up thinking and doing, then problems will arise that will damage the customer experience.”
Content seriesView full content series
Caroline Tan, managing director of Inspiring People, gives an example of the kind of ‘promotional gaps’ that can emerge if sales and service aren’t in alignment.
“The service offer (KPIs/standards) agreed by the customer service strategy say that “excellence” equals a turnaround of 72 hours of order, for instance. However, the sales team are winning business by saying ‘yes, we can get our orders out to you within 48 hours’ (or sometimes less) as the rule rather than the exception.
“This maybe creates a quick win in terms of contract being signed up and commission being earned - however, it potentially causes customer dissatisfaction when the first order is placed.”
“Alignment is often the most impactful dysfunction in any contact centre or customer service operation,” warns Colin Taylor, CEO & chief chaos officer at The Taylor Reach Group. “Any dichotomy between the sales and marketing promise and the services or products delivered breeds mistrust and suspicion, which detracts from the customer experience and customer loyalty.
“By forging close working relationship between sales and customer service and creating alignment, potential messaging conflicts can be identified, addressed and communicated effectively to the customer. Furthermore, a close working relationship ensures that the customer service department is ‘in the loop’ and aware of activities that can impact on customers such as sales promotions, whether sales is attending a specific trade show or conference, which can in turn direct prospects to those events and to the sales force.”
Obstacles to collaboration
Tan lists a whole host of benefits to the service department, the customer and indeed the company as a whole if there is tight alignment between service and sales. These include:
- Customer confidence and reassurance in the service delivered, because they are receiving the same messages from whoever they deal with across the organisation.
- Accurate, on-time delivery for customers, so they can plan their service onwards if applicable.
- Greater customer trust in the organisation.
- More customer trust equals greater loyalty and ultimately more business for the organisation.
- Fewer complaints will drive up efficiency.
- For the individuals at the company, enhanced working relationships will mean a happier workforce.
- Fewer negative customer interactions (complaints) and more positive interactions means improvements in job satisfaction.
However, sales and service have traditionally not worked hand in glove, for a number of reasons. But one of the most significant is the importance placed on the role of the customer service department within the organisation as a whole.
Tan notes: “Sadly, service is often seen as the poor relation by managers who don’t understand the importance of the concept of customer experience. The customer service department is sometimes seen as “that department over there” who deal with complaints and orders, while sales is seen as the shining lights, bringing in new business. Sales is seen as revenue generation and profit – the customer service department is seen as a cost to the business.”
Other traditional obstacles that Tan believes come between sales and service include:
- The culture of the organisation not placing importance on customer service and experience.
- Customer service not being led from the top of the company, but seen as a necessary evil.
- Commission-based sales teams measured on sales targets rather than a consistent set of measures across the organisation measuring customer impact and experience.
- The structure of the organisation – how separate the two functions are, how well or not they communicate and whether there is any working relationship established between the two.
- Egos within the organisation and the respective teams.
“Customer service has historically been viewed as a ‘cost centre’ and a ‘necessary evil’ rather than a contributing member of the sales team,” adds Taylor.
“Everyone has a ‘day job’ and with the customer department historically a vague notion rather than a valued partner, it takes time to build the bridges and connectivity between the groups that fosters closer working relations and collaboration.”
So what can service leaders and the team as whole do to foster greater collaboration with the sales department?
With dialogue and communications absolutely key, leaders need to establish how they can encourage and formally support collaboration – from educating staff about the importance and benefits of cooperation with other teams, to the establishment of regular formal meetings and the installation of collaboration tools that simplify information-sharing.
A good starting point, however, is to break down the cultural silos between the teams.
Job swapping is always a fun exercise to do to get teams to understand better what the others are doing.
“Set aside egos and avoid tribalism at all costs,” advises Beesley. “Make effort for teambuilding. Learning together on courses and workshops, and secondments and job shadowing can often make more inroads to building positive relationships than attending the annual company BBQ where people can tend to stick together in their own teams.”
“Better communication is certainly the best way to get departments to work closer,” notes Claire Boscq-Scott, customer service and rapport-building expert. “Job swapping is always a fun exercise to do to get teams to understand better what the others are doing. Better internal communication is important - picking the phone up or walk over to the other department to talk to someone instead of sending an email. It seems silly but there is nothing like face-to-face interaction to build rapport.”
Taylor believes that the service department needs to take the initiative if and when they have valuable information.
“The customer service department must pro-actively reach out to sales and share the insights they from close customer interaction,” he says. “The customer service is well placed to be a listening post for the organisation, or if you will, the ‘canary in the coal mine’. The call centre will usually be the first to hear of problems or issues with products and/or services. This customer intelligence can be of significant value to the sales department and help them to re-frame their customer messages or at minimum know what to expect during customer or prospect meeting. Similarly the sales department can help customer service to better plan and manage their operations. This is a win/win outcome for both groups.”
Beesley believes that leaders need to take key responsibility for collaboration, both in terms of championing the cause and more formal measures.
“It’s not just the ‘what’ needs to be achieved (e.g. key performance indicators) but the ‘how’ (e.g. external ‘sales’ behaviours and internal ‘teamwork’ behaviours),” he explains. “Very often the sales and customer service teams can be at odds because the KPIs and behaviours are at best unaligned or at worst undefined. Leadership, through seeing and acting upon the bigger picture, needs to bring these together.
“Having leadership that sees the bigger picture is critical. Relationships at a senior level need to be strong. Goals, objectives and behaviours need to be fully aligned. Although there needs to be plenty of space for healthy debate there is no room for any turf wars. Having the customer experience as the focal point is essential. This will help to negate any egos by counter balancing any personal ambitions of senior leaders that may exist. The bottom line is ‘no customers, no business’. The importance of aligned leadership cannot be overlooked. After all, customers’ expectations and employees’ well-being will depend upon it.”
Tan summarises some of the main action points that should be taken to improve collaboration with sales:
- Understand the impacts of the disconnect within the organisation – help people to understand the costs of complaints and failure to deliver.
- Make customer service everybody’s job across the organisation and creating individual accountability for customer service (“Think of the Disney model – everyone’s first job is the customer followed by their function, so if a litter collector is asked directions, their first job is customer regardless of what their job title says”).
- Think about organisational structure and how to build relationships between sales and customer service in order to build trust, understanding and communication.
- Find a way for each role to spend time with the other to gain an understanding of what the other faces (shadowing/meeting attendance/field visits, etc).
- Ensure everyone is working towards the same vision and goals – “A one vision culture can be achieved effectively with a balanced scorecard business model”.
- Appoint a customer champion to sit on the board or at least at senior management level.
Customer service trainer/coach, author & speaker Steve DiGioia, believes that leaders, teams and staff that put in the effort to break down the barriers between themselves and other departments will reap the benefits in the long-term, both from a commercial point of view, but also at a personal level too.
“There are inherent differences in the basic and primary responsibilities of a sales person versus those of a member of the customer service department or operational team,” he concludes. “Sales doesn’t live in a vacuum, nor do those on the frontline of service. Each must understand the overall needs and expectations of the company and how their responsibilities fulfill that need.
“When we value the opinion and relationship of a close friend we will not do anything to cause harm or place them in a position where they cannot be successful. A similar mindset must exist between sales and service.
“How may I help you?” is a term not just used by a customer service employee towards a customer. It must be used between employees of all departments. Team mates understand eachother’s needs and responsibilities and operate under a set of values that all can benefit from.
“A positive and nurturing work environment, gained through a close relationship amongst peers, will do more to stimulate growth, and sales, than can be measured. Business will prosper and so too will fresh ideas and capabilities.”
About Neil Davey
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.