Perspective: How to Get Some

One of the truisms of any organization is that organizational growth and/or your ascension through the ranks is in inverse proportion to the amount of communication you receive from the bottom. There are 2 main causes for this. Either one is bad; both together are death:
  • People below you in the org chart assume that you already know everything.
  • People below you in the org chart know that you don't know everything, but they're A) afraid to be the one to tell you, or B) decide that it's not their job to tell you.

To be effective, a manager must know what's happening at every level of the organization.

So how do you get the perspective that you need?

In every organization that I've ever been a part of, Customer Service was and is the repository of (almost) all knowledge. While they may lack the 'Big Picture' view, CS reps live and breathe issues from outside (external Customers) and inside (internal Customers) every single day. They are the first to hear when there is a problem, and the first to know whether or not a proposed solution actually works. Also, because they are in direct communication with both kinds of Customers, they have their fingertips on the heartbeat of your company.

Even if your relationship with the Customer Service Manager is good, it can be a touchy thing to sit with Customer Service. Wouldn't you feel funny if another manager asked to sit with your direct reports for a few days? To avoid that whole thing, we pay thousands of dollars to consultants to sit with people for us and tell us what they say. Then we tell ourselves that we spent all that money because we just don't have time to do it ourselves, or that it's somehow beneath us. The real reason is that we don't want the confrontation that we think will result.

Everyone's job is to hold everyone else accountable for doing the best job they can, and to help them do that in whatever way you can.
 If you purposely create a culture where everyone sits with everyone else on a regular basis, it stops being scary. And here's the magic word that you will use to make it happen:

Cross-training.

Rolls nicely off the tongue, doesn't it? And it's even true: You really do want to know how things work in that other department, because then you'll also learn what dumb things you unintentionally do that make their lives hell, along with being able to provide fresh eyes for all of their processes. How can it possibly be a bad thing for everyone to understand what everyone else actually does, and what their challenges are? Getting inside our colleagues' skins is right in line with the whole philosophy of Customer for Life!

If I could, whenever I joined a new company, I would hire in as a Customer Service rep for 2 weeks, and not let anyone know that I was anything else. I'd take a notebook and a bunch of pens and write down everything I saw and heard. At the end of the 2 weeks, I'd think about everything good and hard, and then put together a plan of action the following Monday to address the dozens of things Customer Service assumed I already knew, or that they  (or their manager) were too afraid to tell me.

Since you can't do that, you can at least listen in on calls and watch Customer Service in action as yourself. Bring a big box of good chocolate or cookies with you; it's amazing how people loosen up over a little sugar. What is their process? Look for inefficient workarounds (there are always inefficient workarounds, most of them unintentional). Look for how often calls are transferred as opposed to completed on the spot, and ask why. Look at what extra work the Customer Service reps do (all Customer Service reps perform dozens of tasks that have nothing to do with Customer Service). Should they actually own those tasks, or are they the result of an inefficiency in your own department, or someone else's?

Question everything.

This should be a regular part of your routine, especially after any kind of reorg or process change in your own department, and don't stop with Customer Service (although you should certainly start there). The more often you do it, 
the less scary it is, and the more it becomes a regular part of your culture. Especially if you take the other department's manager out for lunch and speak in private about what each of you saw and heard (she gets to sit with your team, too, right?). One pair of eyes and one brain are good; 4 eyes and 2 brains are better; everyone's eyes, ears, and brains combined are the first steps on the path to Kaizen (or CANI... Constant and Never-Ending Improvement).

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