Workplace Wisdom

Who Defines Your Service Rules?

According to an old Swahili proverb: “When the elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.”

That’s certainly true in organizations where executives have ongoing disagreements. Whether the situation involves explicit, pitched battles, or covert, passive-aggressive resistance, it’s the folks lower down in the hierarchy who are most affected by the lack of alignment — they end up feeling either whipsawed or trapped.

But there’s a double whammy when this kind of clash happens in the area of customer care. Frontline associates and their supervisors suffer collateral damage — first, from perpetually having to adjust to changing directives about policies and procedures, and second, from feeling guilty, frustrated, or even ashamed that they’re unable to take good enough care of customers.

Herd the Elephants

So whenever I’m asked to help a company develop service strategy, I recommend bringing more decision-makers into the discussion rather than relying only on the perspective of the person who has functional responsibility. It’s crucial to help the disagreeing “elephants” agree before the entire service organization goes into high gear to implement new directions.

Part of the challenge is that these execs often actually agree — but only on a very high, conceptual level. They may all want high-quality interactions or feel that service associates should be empowered to make decisions that are in the best interest of the customer.

But the execs’ desired outcomes can differ widely: The sales leader may try to maximize revenue while the marketing leader wants optimal customer experience and the operations head looks for cost-efficiency and accuracy. Meanwhile, the controller might press for margin. So expectations for execution could vary from having a no-questions-asked policy, to taking the customer’s word, to asking customers for “proof” when they “deserve” refunds.

Find a Middle Ground

It seems obvious that it should be the execs’ responsibility — if not their natural inclination — to resolve their conflicts before unaligned directives make their way into training and out to the contact center. But that’s often not the case. When squabbling execs end their meetings without examining the specifics, or send their lieutenants to work out the details, their seconds may only argue their bosses’ positions without negotiating a middle ground.

If the sides merely hold their stances, communication won’t improve, and the implementers may get caught in the crossfire. Meanwhile, no one is resolving the discrepancy for the poor son-of-a-gun wearing the headset, who’s trying to help every customer be happy enough. When frontline workers feel too stressed by a lack of corporate alignment, they often put their heads down and disengage, just trying to stay out of trouble. Logical potential consequences include absenteeism, malicious compliance, and eventual turnover — all of which have costs that may not be obvious to the disagreeing execs back in the conference room.

Let the Grass Grow

When the executive disagreement persists, it’s worth bringing in a facilitator who understands the potential impacts of moving too far in any direction — as well as the need for everyone to understand the same ground rules in the same way. Then the grass can get grow greener on everyone’s side.

Onward and upward,

LK

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