• December 1, 2009
  • By Mark Williams, president & founder, Virtual Hold Technology

Collaboration Counts

My friend Dave, a customer service manager at a Fortune 500 company, was recently lamenting some of the "information roadblocks" his employees were hitting when trying to solve simple customer problems. For example, when a customer called with a billing question, the front-liners had to dip into multiple information systems — including CRM and departmental or divisional databases, such as sales, manufacturing, supply chain, logistics, finance, and service — before they could provide an accurate response. Navigating these systems takes time, increases the likelihood of errors, and in turn, decreases the quality of customer service.

After listening to his dilemma, my response was to ask, "How are you collaborating with your technology department to solve these problems?"

Of course, I knew the answer. The two departments weren't really collaborating at all.

This situation is typical for many companies today: Customer service teams struggle with applications that don't support their needs, while technology departments try to balance functionality with security, scalability, and usability — often on inherited systems that have outlived their time.

Some companies have tried to address this challenge by implementing systems based on service-oriented architecture (SOA) principles. But before making an investment in new technology, companies need to bring all the problem solvers to the table, which includes two often disconnected players:

  • customer service teams; and
  • in-house technology experts who will implement and maintain the system.

The focus should be on creating a collaborative environment where all stakeholders will work together.

So how is this accomplished? First, it's important to recognize the cultural differences that divide the two groups. Business departments are generally relationship-oriented, collaborative, and focused on doing whatever is required to enhance the customer experience. Technology departments are expected to be task-oriented and logical thinkers, focused on maintaining policies and standards in order to ensure long term supportability and stability of processes and systems. 

Oftentimes, the two groups misunderstand the other's position when trying to solve a customer-service technology problem, which can truly inhibit what the company is trying to accomplish — an overall better customer experience and ultimately, increased revenues.

Misunderstandings tend to start early in the process because business groups tend to slip project requirements and a deadline through the technology department's mail slot without any further discussion. If the the task is well-defined and the solutions are clear, this one-sided approach may work. However, it doesn't work with today's complex business problems. The lack of communication also gives the impression that technology's only role is to take and fulfill orders. The result is disappointment and mistrust between the groups and unfortunately, little improvement to customer experiences.

The best approach for creating true collaboration is through a facilitated discussion that takes both parties' goals into account. For business groups, this means clearly explaining consumers' preferences and defining what customers value. For technology, this means establishing a well-defined set of requirements to ensure adherence to policies and standards around:

  • integration;
  • connection;
  • processing;
  • performance;
  • security;
  • reporting;
  • usability; and
  • availability.

It's often helpful to involve the input of a third-party vendor or an in-house project manager. Therefore, when embarking on a collaborative project, consider bringing in a facilitator who can help translate each side's needs and track individual buy-in. Regardless of who the facilitator is, there still needs to be a clear structure set in place to bridge communication paths between the business group and technology. Moreover, the two groups must agree to the frequency, content, and format of communication. Recognize and discuss the contrasting cultures between departments and how those differences can be overcome. Keep in mind that both sides want to be successful, so if you only give a little, you'll get a little in return. 

Also remember that unexpected changes are almost inevitable, especially because the business group is constantly reacting to market drivers, such as customer preferences. For example, with the advent of new avenues of communication through Facebook and Twitter, company services need to examine their social media strategy and how it fits into customer satisfaction requirements.  

When working with the facilitator, the entire group must decide on a process that delineates how changes will be handled. Team members must recognize that change will result in progress as it brings the company closer to delivering the most business value. By managing expectations, companies can stay ahead of the cognitive dissonance that occurs when the original plan changes course.

The benefits of collaboration extend well beyond problem-solving. Having these two critical groups work together can shorten a project timeline, thereby reducing cost. More important, with knowledge and cooperation built into a company's collaborative process, any issues that arise within the new system can be handled better and more quickly.

The bottom line: Collaboration creates the best customer service.  

About the Author

Mark Williams (mwilliams@virtualhold.com) is president and founder of Virtual Hold Technology (VHT), a provider of virtual queuing solutions. With 20 years in the contact center industry, Williams uses his experience as both a solution developer and an end user of contact center solutions to solve the challenges facing today's contact centers.

Please note that the Viewpoints listed in CRM magazine and appearing on destinationCRM.com represent the perspective of the authors, and not necessarily those of the magazine or its editors. You may leave a public comment regarding this article by clicking on "Comments" at the top.
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For the rest of the December 2009 issue of CRM magazine please click here.

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