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What does an organization really value?

May 14, 2010

I was at a client recently and found myself in a situation that provides a good illustration of how challenging it can be to gain support for ECM at an organization.

Basically I had spent five or six weeks in deep on this engagement—meeting with stakeholders, poring over documentation, analyzing their web presence, and working side-by-side with our project team and sponsor—plus, they were in a vertical that I had a lot of experience with. All in all, I felt pretty comfortable with my take on the organization and where they were headed…and I had some good ideas on where ECM could add business-relevant value.

One of those areas was customer service. From everything I knew about this client and their industry (which is heavily regulated and has strong consumer protections in place), customer experience was a core business driver—it was even one of the four areas called out by the CEO in their annual company meeting. And I knew that their CSRs were struggling under the weight of the three or four dozen systems they used (sometimes all on a single call) to help customers as well as disorganized knowledge base content scattered across a number of departmental repositories. Some combination of CSR portal and improved document management would do wonders for their performance.

I sat down to talk with a couple of call center managers, and about halfway through the meeting, I hit what Mahan Khalsa calls a yellow light—an indication that something isn’t quite right, which needs to be surfaced and dealt with in order to avoid serious problems later on. It turned out that their call centers had been struggling for years, not only with this hodgepodge of systems, but with extremely high turnover rates and no serious financial or political commitment from the organization to make things better.

This was a yellow light for a couple of reasons. First, we’re talking about a call center, a competency that in 2010 is so mature across all industries that it’s practically a commodity. So the fact that this organization had a struggling call center wasn’t because it’s hard to figure out what makes for a great call center. Second, this organization went out of its way to talk about how important customer experience was from the highest levels on down…yet there seemed to be no financial or political support for improving the call center.

Since I’m a person who believes in being direct, I asked, “So if customer experience is a core value of this organization, why hasn’t it dedicated the time, resources, and money needed to fix the call center over the last ten years?”

The response was underwhelming, to say the least. Not only didn’t anyone have an answer, but it seemed like the question had never occurred to them before. I moved on to discuss other topics for the remaining time we had, but basically, the yellow light had turned red, and that had some important implications for selling ECM at this organization.

First, despite what the organization said about how important the customer experience was, it wasn’t something they valued enough to spend time and resources on. So, from the perspective of finding business value that ECM could drive, improving customer experience was not a good candidate if the endgame was to secure ECM funding—after all, if the call center can’t get funding, how is ECM for the call center going to get it?

Second, although the organization hadn’t supported the call center, this didn’t mean it wasn’t organizationally relevant…quite the opposite: this team touched all the core business processes and had strong relationships with the key players involved. And even if leadership wasn’t willing to put up the time and resources to improve the customer experience, lots of folks across the organization at all levels were passionate about making the customer experience the best it could be. So if ECM could contribute to that, it would win influence throughout the organization, even if it didn’t translate into financial support.

Finally, recognizing the disconnect between what leadership said and what they did got my guard up and encouraged me to ask good questions about how the organization operated at the highest levels: Was leadership intentionally presenting one agenda while pursuing another? Was there conflict between some of the CXOs over the goal of customer satisfaction (and possibly others)? Was there a break in the chain of command, so that the good intentions of top leadership never resulted in execution? And so on.

The jury’s still out on the root cause for this discrepancy between intention and execution, but you can bet that as a project team, we’re pursuing the customer service engagement with eyes wide open so we can do our best to be successful transforming not only the call centers, but some part of the larger organization as well.

Would love to hear from folks who’ve been through similar situations for what they took away from the experience or what they think of my approach.

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