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Business Journal
Roadblocks to Customer Engagement (Part 3)
Business Journal

Roadblocks to Customer Engagement (Part 3)

by Tom Rieger and Guido M.J. de Koning

This is the third article in a three-part series on organizational obstacles that prevent companies from becoming truly customer-focused. The first article addressed factors relating to employee management. The second piece discussed how to manage toward key outcomes that lead to business success. This final article will review some of the common barriers to aligning teams and practices to create customer engagement.

The concept of alignment is simple: Does every aspect of your organization work toward what you want to accomplish? Does every practice, process, or measure you put in place reinforce your organization's strategic direction as well as the experience and value you want your customers to enjoy?

In the real world, misalignment is more common than full alignment. As we discussed in the previous two articles, organizations often mismanage their workers by promoting the best employees out of their roles, focusing them on process instead of outcomes, or paying them based on the wrong performance measures. Also, it's not uncommon for practices, policies, systems, or processes to cause different behaviors and performance than the company would like. But usually, leadership is blind to this lack of alignment.

If you're unsure whether your organization is aligned to meet customer needs, spend some quality time with your customers and the front-line employees who interact with them. Find out how easy or difficult it is for your customers to get their problems resolved and what tends to get in the way. Observe how eager your employees are to take care of your customers -- and why. Watch what behaviors the manager rewards -- and why.

Most leadership teams are far removed from customer touchpoints, and they can't see when systems and process don't add up to exemplary customer service. When this happens, leaders probably find these two roadblocks in the way.

Roadblock one: territorialism, parochialism, and empire building

A subscriber to a home warranty company had a problem with his furnace and called in a claim. One week later, a technician showed up, took a quick look at the furnace, and said, "Yep, it needs to be replaced." He informed the customer that the company would send an engineer to measure the furnace -- even though the technician had a tape measure attached to his belt -- then raced out the door. Three weeks later, an engineer arrived, spent one-and-a-half minutes measuring how tall the furnace was, and left. Another week later, a salesperson called the customer to go over his options. If all three tasks had been done during the first service call, not only would the customer have been happier, but the company would have boosted productivity -- and saved money.

In another company, the Web team handled customer complaints that were sent via e-mail. The phone team handled all complaints that were phoned in. And complaints that were mailed in were handled by the mail-processing department. In itself, this isn't necessarily a problem -- except that no one ever compared notes to see if the three departments could help each other or improve service for the customers. No one looked to see if people were complaining about the same issues. They didn't share their responses, remedies, or best practices in responding to the complaints. According to those responsible for each department, it was "not my job."

Another organization organized a management conference, and all departments presented their projects and priorities for the year. To everyone's surprise, three different departments announced they were creating a customer database. Three separate ones, to be specific -- and all for the same customers.

Lack of coordination and heavily fortified silos can cost companies millions of dollars in duplicate and/or conflicting efforts. Many programs are initiated -- or have been in place for years -- that don't have any measurable impact on customers or organizational performance, and no one is eliminating those programs.

Often, this occurs due to a lack of leadership. Creating a culture in which no internal policy, practice, or program is sacred if it turns out to be harmful or wasteful requires courage. To remain customer-focused, companies must continuously streamline their programs and infrastructure by examining whether they effectively meet customer or employee needs. But few companies do this.

Roadblock two: misaligned goals

One company discovered that it needed to address two important customer concerns. First, customers had to wait too long before someone answered their telephone calls; second, customers thought that the company was charging too much for the service it offered. Different departments were assigned to solve these respective problems. The operations group responsible for reducing "wait time" recommended hiring more service representatives. The team analyzing the cost structure concluded they needed fewer service representatives. If both departments independently pursued their own goals and interests, the result would be a waste of valuable time and resources.

In another organization, the marketing department frequently developed campaigns that increased the number of customers calling in to ask about or register for a service. The operations group, however, was held accountable for keeping call volume as low as possible. A predictable and preventable conflict resulted from these conflicting priorities.

Many retailers try to improve the customer service experience in their stores by using programs that only identify defects. A "mystery shopper" methodology, for example, can be quite effective at identifying stores where the shopping experience is truly bad. But these programs are usually much less effective in measuring or identifying stores that create great shopping experiences for their customers -- the type of experience the company wants. As a result, these programs promote a culture that fixates on avoiding problems rather than fostering a friendlier, more engaging, customer-focused experience. But companies can't foster excellence just by avoiding failure.

To create sustained growth by meeting customer needs, an organization must align its goals, departments, and practices toward creating profitable and engaged customer relationships. Achieving this vision requires an ongoing assessment of what is working for -- and against -- the company's long-term goals. Fine-tuning practices, eliminating programs, integrating departments, and adjusting performance objectives -- these are agenda items for leaders who want their organizations to encourage deepening customer relationships.


Tom Rieger is the author of Breaking the Fear Barrier.
Guido M.J. de Koning is a former consultant with Gallup.

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