Putting Customers Before Politics

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The chief operating officer of a global HR and payroll services provider threw up her hands in despair. Month after month, she received reports indicating that more than half of the company's sales orders had errors. Sometimes it was bad customer data; other times, the service options offered to the customer had been bundled or priced incorrectly. For every error, the salesperson would return to the customer to redo the order. This was incredibly inefficient and eroded customers' confidence in the company, sometimes to the point of canceling orders altogether.

The COO had twice attempted to implement a technology solution that would reduce the error rate. Both times, the effort failed because the business allowed for inconsistent processes. Sales processes and IT infrastructure were slightly different from one business unit to the next, and business unit leaders jostled to prioritize pet projects over what was in the best interest of the organization as a whole.

Navigating a culture built on silos, and challenging fiefdoms that ultimately hamper productivity and profitable growth is an experience many COOs face. The key is to involve the right stakeholders and eliminate the politics by focusing on what is of most value to the organization.

To truly address business challenges, organizations need to view customer operations as a whole. An integrated customer operations approach requires representation from across the functional silos. By fostering collaboration among sales, operations, legal, finance, internal audit, and marketing, organizations can make decisions knowing the compromises that both the front and back office need to make.

With the right stakeholders involved, the next key element is getting them focused on the right issues. Using an outside-in perspective, focusing directly on customer experience through the use of personas and scenarios, is particularly helpful. Personas capture what both internal and external customers care about most and the key issues that the organization must resolve. Scenarios establish a common understanding of the capabilities needed to optimize an end-to-end process or transaction.

Once the organization knows what the customer wants and which processes to focus on, it needs to enable them. Business input can result in hundreds, or even thousands, of requirements. Perhaps it's too expensive, takes too long, or is unnecessary. Instead, organizations can use a value-driver model to determine which requirements have high value (e.g., reduce cost, improve performance) and prioritize them based on which will have the most impact on the organization's bottom line. This approach offers an objective view of how to enact the transformation—and succeed.

An integrated customer operations approach also requires a change management component. This includes using iterative pilot programs that gather relevant stakeholders in conference rooms and solicit their input. Identifying gaps earlier in the program makes them easier and less expensive to address. At the same time, early and frequent stakeholder involvement will drive greater adoption as the improvement effort moves forward.

In the case of the HR and payroll services organization, by using an integrated customer operations approach, the COO was able to successfully implement a scenario-based, value-driven, technology-enabled process transformation that resulted in lasting change throughout the organization. The new fully automated sales order processes fundamentally changed the organization's relationship with its customers. Customers had greater confidence in the organization, resulting in an increase in sales.

An integrated customer operations approach gives organizations the framework they need to create a culture that makes transformation programs feasible. By making the effort objective, while still making affected stakeholders feel as if they are an integral part of the outcome, organizations can design and implement programs that optimize operations, reduce costs, improve productivity, make the most of IT investments, and ultimately drive value that directly and positively affects the bottom line.

Woody Driggs is the global advisory customer leader for Ernst & Young. He is a principal in the company's Advisory Services Performance Improvement practice and is based in Washington, DC. Rob Holland is a principal in Ernst & Young's Advisory Services Customer practice and is based in Houston.

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