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The work of external customers is accomplished in front office settings. However, some businesses have multiple auxiliary outlets that are intended to function as external customer facing entities even though their role is traditionally “back office,” and can be considered ‘front offices.’ Recently, I saw a back office department designed to function as a front office simultaneously with already established front office departments. When front office employees needed assistance and called the back office department, their calls went into the same queue as the external customers and slowed the workflow to a halt. Bringing up questions about organizational design, workflow, and customer focus, to name a few.
The primary customer in the back office is the internal customer. The back office receives no external customer contact unless it is directed and controlled. The back office has a different pace with different priorities and processes because it is not external customer facing. External customers are considered those that build the bottom line, and internal customers are those who hold an employee badge and have access to the computer systems. Internal customers can include vendors, contractors, and business leaders.
Over the last two years, I have noticed a shift in business processes that have affected front and back office performances. The front office is becoming more regulated by local, state, and federal government intrusion, and the back office is becoming more bloated or overstaffed and disconnected. Following is a good example of disconnection between the front and back offices. Processing times for actions taken to support an external customer request is moving from 1-3 business days to an extreme example of 7-15 business days. The back office when queried on the time frames stated “new processes” required more time. The problem was not “new processes” but animosity, technology, and culture. The business leader in charge of keeping the front and back offices communicating claimed the problem resolved when processing times went from 15-30 business days back to 7-15 business days for a week. After the processing times went back to 15-30 business days, the business leader accused the front office of exaggeration and issued an edict to prove the problem. This generated a report that required timely, man power intense, participation of front office workers, which taxed the front office workers’ time, e.g., production hours lost, lessened time for external customers, and day-to-day work. The report was ignored and other business became more important. Back office disconnect is killing businesses currently, and the toll is being seen in failed bottom-line performance.
Consider this analogy: ‘blue’ money is all about potential. Train an employee and they are given the potential to do a new job faster, more effectively, or take on additional tasks. ‘Green’ money is all about the bottom-line, representing cash, the ‘lifeblood’ of the company. Front office and back office disconnections begin with customer service failure and end with external customer disgruntlement. Internal customer service is more important to organizational health, e.g., ‘blue’ money performance and bottom-line increase, than any other single variable in an organization. Poor internal customer service leads to disastrous external customer service; yet, the blame for failing the external customer lies at the feet of the front office exclusively. “How often are front office employees frustrated by back office performance?” This single question will tell a business leader more about the entire organization’s health than any other question. Be brave, ask the question, and then look for solutions that improve back office performance in supporting the front office, e.g., customer loyalty building experiences.
Gitomer (1998) writes about business leaders becoming customers of their organizations. To see the full impact of the front/back office disconnect, he suggests a business leader approach his organization as a customer who contacts customer service by calling the customer service number, asks for something, pushes for logical answers to questions, and sees the length of time to complete the transaction; then ask the appropriate ‘why’ questions to evaluate his experience and probe the issues. Gitomer (1998) is absolutely correct; if all you do, as an organization is “customer service,” your organization is missing ‘Golden Opportunities’ and losing business.
Tips for improving:
- Cultivate positive and supportive internal customer service, at all levels, for all internal interactions. From the top of the hierarchy chain, ‘professional’ should be paired with ‘customer loyalty building’ to begin the cultivation of the customer first mindset.
- What does “Voice of the Customer” mean? Customer service is more than making sure customer issues and questions are resolved. Customer service is not the phone interview, emailed survey, or the myriad bureaucratic nonsense passing for “Voice of the Customer” programs currently in vogue. A company can proclaim amazing “Voice of the Customer” numbers and still fail miserably in meeting customer expectations. Make the “Voice of the Customer,” especially the internal customer, mean something. This requires both sound strategy and tactical application in cultivating the customer loyalty building experiences at all levels in the business.
- Brady and Woodward (2005) brought levels of leadership into the business conversation. Many authors write about the separation between managers and leaders. Jim Collins wrote an entire series on moving from “Good to Great” requiring the principles of leadership. When was the last time you were questioned about your internal customer service by another department, a manager, or director? Did that opportunity to provide feedback to you mean anything? Leadership provides the bridge to making the “Voice of the Customer” have organizational impact.
- The role of fun. Customer service is serious with plentiful opportunities to be happy to angry and all the human emotions in between; but, if customer service is not fun first, this element is missing in how the business is designed. Missing the element of fun trickles out to the external customers because the internal customers are not feeling they were served. An element of fun goes a long way to meeting the natural human expectation in customer relations. Dauten (2003) discusses the “Laughing Warriors” and the element of fun as an integral part to action. Fun carries the risk of actually enjoying your job. In all my call center experiences, employees genuinely desired to have fun although fun was perceived differently individually and by experience. Embracing the trace element ‘fun’ in a business is a method for generating flexibility, kindness, and improving the customer experience for both internal and external customers. This means non-customer facing departments are provided the same opportunity to have fun, define fun, and discover fun.
- Process and procedure review. If your business processes are not tied to a single person accountable for that process, disconnect between the front and back office is growing. If your organizational process review allows processes to remain longer than 18-months between significant reviews, disconnect is growing. I walked into a manufacturing position, ISO 9001 certified, and the last time any process had been reviewed in any significant manner was when the business was certified five years previously and the disconnect between how production occurred and the ISO procedure was worlds apart. This same pattern was replicated multiple times since, always to the detriment of the business. ‘Blue Money’ flowing through the collective old processes provides ample opportunity to torch dumpsters full of ‘Green Money’ into useless ash. Accountability and responsibility are prerequisite to positive internal and external customer experiences.
Brady, C., & Woodward, O. (2008). Launching a leadership revolution, mastering the five levels of influence. New York, NY: Business Plus.
Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap…and others don’t. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.
Collins, J. (2006). Good to great and the social sectors: A monograph to accompany Good to great. London: Random House Business.
Collins, J., & Hansen, M. (2011). Great by choice: Uncertainty, chaos, and luck: Why some thrive despite them all. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Collins, J., & Porras, J. (1994). Built to last: Successful habits of visionary companies. New York: Collins Business Essentials – A Collins Business Book: An Imprint of Harper Collins.
Dauten, D. (2003). The laughing warriors: How to enjoy killing the status quo. Richmond, CA: Lumina Media.
Gitomer, J. (1998). Customer satisfaction is worthless – Customer loyalty is priceless. Atlanta, GA: Bard Press.