Author’s note: In this installment of the Lost in the Labyrinth series, I talk about the reciprocal responsibilities of the C-level and the contact center to identify, inform, understand and, ultimately, resolve the issues that impede the customer experience. Only then can true progress be made.
Success will come at the C-level when it is realized that the contact center is no longer simply a source of implementing technology and managing people. It is actually a proof point for implementing change. At the contact center level, justifications for change are made on a cost-justification basis. Change justification is not congruent with the efficiency dictates of contact centers.
Breaking down the walls of the service labyrinth can only happen at the most senior of executive levels. Customer service chain executives—such as contact center managers—cannot and do not reengineer the corporation. Sustainable, identifiable, long-lasting impact revolutions have always occurred from the top down. Not that they couldn’t happen from the contact center today, but for the most part, contact center mid-management staff are untrained in the finer points of reengineering. They often create “polite lies” for reports delivered to the C-level, performing all manner of mathematical magic to bring things like abandonment rates into target range. This is to avoid drawing attention to the contact center and give the C-level what it has asked for. Meanwhile, these mid-managers attempt to put out the seemingly never-ending fires that dominate their environment. There is a lot of activity substituted for achievement that surrounds the nature and functions of contact centers.
While contact centers may engage in magic math related to metrics, we also see a tendency (as one contact center leader told me), “to not want to throw anyone under the bus.” This is why they don’t identify to senior leaders the areas where vast majorities of problems originate. So apparently, no one goes under the bus but the customer! Contact centers must adopt a comfort level with disruption! Far too often, the contact center possesses information of great value; but the value will only be realized once information is shared and problems resolved.
There is an institutionally embedded misunderstanding about the true complexity of communicating with customers. The fundamental observation for the C-level is that this challenge can be more explicit; it is not as much about a failure to communicate as it is about a failure to understand. The failure to understand is what leads to the failure to communicate. It is not the other way around!
C-levels must strive to truly understand what it takes to run an effective contact center operation. Institutional conflict (i.e., office politics) arises when we realize that contact centers can no longer be run as we run battleships… with a command-and-controlmentality. Too often at the company’s core, we find executive leaders in denial. They just don’t want to know that their enterprise can’t get the customer experience right. To compensate, contact center managers are often selected for their ability to follow and not to lead.
It may be that the C-level spends too much time looking at Wall Street and not enough time looking at customer experiences within the enterprise as a contribution to value. It is an old question that is still powerfully valid: When was the last time a C-level visited the company contact center? Was it a visit that included more than just a brief pass-through with a visitor?C-levels would benefit greatly from experiencing the customer interaction firsthand!
Admittedly, the complexity of systems and transactions may prohibit the C-level from actually taking calls; but plugging in next to an agent (if only for an hour) provides an experience that is critical to digesting the true nature of the contact and the environment. It takes the C-level real-time to the Cube-level; this actually takes himher real-time to the customer. Consider having a visitor’s cube available at all times; visitors are welcome to check in and sit plugged in side by side with an agent, sign the guest book and leave comments. /If you build it, they will come.
Navigating the Labyrinth of Dysfunction
The C-level is often a co-enabler of consistent and chronic customer service dysfunction. Ignorance is after all a form of enabling, though completely free of malice. Very rarely is there any overt intention to bring down the enterprise contact center. However, how often are C-level executives willing to challenge their own team to identify obstacles to the customer experience that only they can correct?Conditions such as operational silos and crazy budget allocation schemes inherently cause institutional dysfunction. (For example, practices paying for agents in their “pod” within a centralized appointment scheduling center forces an inefficient clientele approach that rejects cross training due to questions around, “Who pays for it?”)
Think about IT organizations that operate in a silo. Far too often, they fail to include the contact center in major technology investments of which they will be the “super users.” Think the telephone system. I can’t count the number of times (many of them recent) where a message like, “Friday your new phone system will be installed” has been sent to contact center leaders.
This happens more than any rational person could even imagine being possible. The fact that contact center leaders are not included in defining requirements to meet their needs often leaves the center struggling to make the “new” system work. Again, this is not a “fault” issue; the enterprise itself has crafted the organizational model with the best of intentions. Sadly, it is not effective. The dysfunction continues when IT limits administrative “permissions” because like a parent it fears the user community might “break” something! If you have to call IT to run a report, add or delete an agent, or change agent skills intraday… your IT department has just proved that it doesn’t understand contact center needs.
This silo story can go on to include marketing, HR, finance and facilities because the contact center is at the heart of the enterprise. It is the breathing apparatus that is impacted by many varied cross functional or “cross-dysfunctional” departments.
Keep in mind that contact center leaders are not victims here, although some adopt that mentality with ease and sometimes for good reason. Especially in these times of great change and disruption, the contact center must be the one that seeks out to stabilize cross functional relationships. This may mean making the case to both the cross functional partners and senior executives. In many cases, mid-level leaders have no ability to change these dynamics; it requires executive oversight.
Take the case of an eCommerce sales contact center manager who presses every available human resource into customer service during the holidays. Ever since the VP of IT had to actually handle customer calls and navigate the very systems his team designed, his sensitivity to the needs of the center grew exponentially. His responsiveness and newly found respect for the operation have translated into removing obstacles and creating a “clear path” between the contact center and IT.
The IT leader’s experience has also had a positive impact on customers in a very oblique way. These changes in relationship, collaboration and perception are some of the most difficult to achieve, much less measure. However, they often have a very significant and positive impact to both the contact center and to the customer experience. If we seek an omnichannel experience for our customers, there needs to be seamless cross-function in operations.
In study after study, the customer experience has been consistently identified by the C-level as a top strategic objective across industries. The C-level objective must be to effectively “reach” the Cube-level by removing barriers. As the C-level reaches down into the enterprise, it is best that the Cube-level reaches up. Be prepared to make these paths stronger!