By Phil Verghis

Background
For a few years now, leaders at customer support organizations have talked about moving customers from a ‘transaction-based’ service and support model to a ‘relationship-based’ one. This involves changing customers’ perceptions, from contacting you only when there are break-fix or how do I questions, to one that understands their business, including the technical and business context of their queries.

With this new approach, you don’t just wait for customers to contact you and then react. Your teams embed knowledge sharing into their practices to reduce or eliminate the ‘known’ issues that customers call about, leaving time for ‘new’ issues or queries that need a personal touch to resolve. You help your customers’ business become more successful by improving the way they use your products and services. This evolution in turn is an important first step in moving from
an expert for hire to a trusted advisor.

After early successes in this journey, many organizations run into a seemingly impenetrable wall. Your senior team ‘gets it,’ but this understanding does not seem to trickle down to most mid-level managers and frontline teams. You are able to get people to share knowledge to tackle the proverbial low hanging fruit (answers to simple issues or frequently repeated questions), but you can’t seem to convince other groups to share knowledge around complex and rarely-repeated processes.

Do they just not get it? What exactly is going on?

The Problem

The single most common reason I’ve seen is a lack of alignment between the ‘big picture’ goals of an organization and the way individuals are measured. In other words the intent of the goals is lost by the time it reaches the individual, where the question is, What does it mean for me?

Most of what we use to measure service success involves measuring what is easy to measure so-called ‘activity-based’ measures. An activity-based measure is easy to measure and easy to manipulate. An example of an activity-based measure is commenting on, or creating two knowledge base articles a week. It’s also easy to manipulate, since an agent can simply put in ‘I agree’ to the comments for an existing document.

This contrasts with an ‘outcome-based’ activity, which is much harder to measure and harder to directly manipulate by a single individual. A good example is customer loyalty.

Tip: By all means include activity-based measures. Just don’t put goals on them. (See advanced tip below). For example, you should watch the abandon rate on your phone queue, perhaps as a lower level activity. Abandon rates are a leading indicator of customer satisfaction.

Advanced tip: Don’t put goals on activities, put goals on outcomes. For example, one of the best ways to compromise the integrity of your knowledge base is to ask your team to, for example, ‘create or update two knowledge base articles a week.’ This will result in exactly that many being created or updated – often in very creative ways! In one organization, a creative agent wrote a program that simply downloaded a random article nightly from the knowledge base, added a space, deleted the space and uploaded the freshly modified document back. When the report ran on ‘new or modified articles’, he got credit for an updated article, all without lifting a finger.

It’s better to put goals on an outcome, like customer satisfaction or customer loyalty. Since they are inherently harder to measure, and harder for an individual to manipulate, it’s necessary for a team member to understand the context, and think about what makes sense to do in that particular situation.

Symptoms

How do you know if your organization has measures that aren’t aligned to the big picture? Well, how many of these statements describe your organization?

  • Whiplash from high-profile, high-visibility projects that are launched with a bang and then fizzle out, only to be replaced by a new set of ‘transformative’ projects the following year.
  • Lots of ‘fire-fighting’ and thrashing around. These generate heat, noise, meetings and reports, but very little demonstrable progress.
  • Cross-functional groups that constantly have to go up and across the management chain to deal with issues, instead of members of different teams being able to work out issues directly.
  • An inordinate obsession with customer satisfaction as a proxy for the general state of the client relationship. Remember, in most companies, only a tiny fraction of customers ever contact you, even when they have a problem. (They attempt to solve it themselves, or reach out to others in the community). Of this tiny fraction of people who seek help from your support team, an even tinier fraction responds to your transactional survey on how ‘happy’ they are.

Managers often forget the tiny base on which customer satisfaction is typically built, and that’s a mistake. I’ve seen significant bonuses paid out based on customer satisfaction scores. Good intent, poor execution. Customer satisfaction has its, as does customer loyalty or Net Promoter Score or Customer Effort. Just don’t fixate on a single number to run your business.

What to do

If you’re looking for ways to align your strategic intent with the behaviors throughout the organization, here are some concrete next steps you can take:

1. Come up with a guidepost statement and align it with what your company is all about. If a vision statement is what you want to be when you grow up, and a mission statement is how you are going to get there, then a guidepost statement is a short, sweet statement that describes uniquely what your team is accountable for. A guidepost statement is one that people can refer to, when they aren’t sure what to do next, in the absence of specific procedures. One client came up with ‘We own subscriber loyalty’ as their guidepost statement. Another put it, ‘We are the advocate for the customer within the company.

Tip: If you stumble for an answer when your grandmother asks you what you do for a living, you do not have a guidepost statement.

2. Come up with three or four balanced, high-level measures that align with your company’s goals, and use them to guide you in leading (not managing) your team. They should also be used by your team members as a guidepost for decision-making when they are wondering what should I do in this particular situation?

Sample measures could revolve around:

  • Increasing revenue from new customers (after all the better you align with the
    business of your business, the more your leadership will listen to you when you
    advocate for your customers)
  • Increasing revenue from existing customers
  • Improving efficiency (something as high level as the ratio of your total spend to
    the overall revenue of your organization)
  • Customer loyalty/Customer Effort Score/Net Promoter Score
  • Employee engagement

Note: You will need other measures to run your business (such as customer satisfaction), but not necessarily at the senior management level. Just deal with exceptions and watch trends carefully.

Tip: Rationalize, (globally) clarify and dramatically reduce your existing measures. Each must be easy to explain, the intent easy to understand, and as much as possible they should be from the customer’s point of view. Here’s a good way to ruthlessly chop the number of measures you currently monitor. Any measure that does not help with at least two of your goals should not be part of the senior team dashboard. If it’s critical, they can watch it at the project level.

Advanced tip: For maximum effectiveness, see if you can work in goals on outcomes that are cross-functional in nature and aligned to the business. For example, consider a common measure of ‘customer adoption’ (as measured by
their using your product or service) across internal groups as diverse as sales, marketing, engineering, support, professional services, training and others. You will find refreshing changes in behavior across the groups, all focused on the
customer.

3. Next, come up with a few, highly focused projects that are critical to making your guidepost statement a reality. Think about people, process and technology-related projects that help the entire customer ecosystem.

Tip: Involve your frontline teams in choosing, defining and executing these projects. Mix up teams in terms of experience, geography, skill levels and even across functions. Let them develop the messaging, including the What’s in it for me? message for stakeholders. Listen to them and let them lead. Some of the most successful projects I have seen have been where the frontline teams come up with the projects and how they should be implemented without managers present. The managers should coach and smash obstacles for the frontline teams. Do this right, and watch employee morale soar — with all the goodness that emerges from that.

4. Measure your direct reports and your teams the new way — guide, not grade. Outcome-based goals force you to ask many questions to really understand what is going on. There won’t be any simple answers, no ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ It will make sense only when you know the context of what’s going on. For example, a high customer satisfaction score may actually be bad if you’re going bankrupt in the process. You move from putting people on the defensive to a feedback and coaching model, one where  people are rewarded for thinking and doing the right thing instead of rigidly following
the letter of the law instead of the intent.

Final thoughts

Guiding, not grading, is one of the most difficult management approaches a leader can adopt. You will initially feel that you’re giving up a lot of control and are flying blind. However, once you are freed from noise and can focus exclusively on the most important things to the business, you and your teams will find this very liberating. You will find that you save time, money and enhance both customer loyalty and employee engagement at the same time.

You are welcome to use, copy, and/or modify this content under this Creative Commons license, provided you display this entire paragraph.

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