The Three Misalignments of Customer Service Teams

Consistency is critical to delivering a great customer experience (CX), according to McKinsey. But it’s not possible to be consistent without first being aligned.

Alignment determines how consistent your customer interactions are. Poor alignment means that each interaction a customer has with your business is different from the last. Poor alignment significantly impacts your NPS score, often marking the difference between your customers being promoters instead of detractors.

Unfortunately, customer interactions often mirror an organization’s structure and process rather than your brand strategy and the needs of your customer. While the way your team treats customers may seem perfectly logical to you, customers often don’t see it the same way. Through personification, your customers ascribe a persona to your business — they expect each interaction with you to fit a certain mold.

Like with people, consistency is critical to trust and loyalty. We do not trust people who are inconsistent. Similarly, we do not trust brands that appear to be all over the place in terms of beliefs and actions.

Your brand is akin to a group stereotype. Your customers have a certain expectation of what your company believes, how it communicates, and how it behaves.

Here are a few types of misalignment that can derail your customer service efforts and turn your company’s greatest customer-facing asset into a liability.

Misalignment #1: Goals and incentives don’t align to the organizational strategy

A couple of popular goals in support is to reduce the length and quantity of calls. While this sounds reasonable, this goal is often owned by Service & Support, rather than by a team that can actually impact the number of support calls. With the best of intentions, service attempts to achieve this goal by making support calls less numerous or by shortening the time on the phone.

This cost-cutting measure leads support to hastily answer customer requests or look for ways to reduce calls. Perhaps they add a phone tree that asks the customer to self-diagnose their problem. Or they increase the wait time — which isn’t a goal because it has been good historically — so they can weed out everybody except the most persistent and needy customers.

The result of this misaligned and poorly assigned goal is that customer service gets worse, churn increases, and NPS decreases. Service achieves its goal, but the company as a whole suffers.

So what can be done about it?

Senior leaders must be diligent about reviewing the goals that are set at the department level. Many goals should actually be owned across functions (e.g. across departments) instead of by a single siloed function. Instead of thinking myopically, senior leaders should be trying to construct meaningful goals that capture the essence of what the company is trying to accomplish and focus on connecting siloed functions through goals.

This issue is also why we’re not a fan of cascading goals. While it may seem perfectly reasonable to reduce the volume of support calls, department-level goals can easily be set that are misaligned to the original point. This creates a problem that is akin to “the letter of the law does not match the spirit of the law,” whereby departmental goals are a misinterpretation of organizational goals.

Without the right business context, leaders of departments cannot set goals that actually achieve the business’ intended purpose. This is also why we heavily emphasize the importance of setting a clear strategy that everybody in the organization can understand — if the company’s strategy is to outcompete its competitors by offering the best overall experience, pulling back on providing excellent customer service may not be the right approach.

The objective instead may be to reduce the dependence of the organization on support to provide that great experience. Perhaps there are areas of the product that are currently augmented with support that could be redesigned to reduce the dependence on support. Or, maybe, support calls could be replaced with a sales-led training session. Without visibility into the strategy, these types of decisions cannot be readily made.

Worse, strategically advantageous decisions may not even be known by those who are executing the strategy. For example, if support team managers are only privy to department-level goals, they may see the goal of reducing the number of repeat support calls out-of-context. They may not look for opportunities to offer self-help alternatives to customers that call in.

Misalignment #2: your systems and processes create communication silos

Have you ever spoken to a customer service representative and patiently explained your issue? Only to be transferred to a new representative, whom you needed to repeat your explanation to? If you’re like most people, it doesn’t take long to think of several frustrating examples of a poorly coordinated customer service interaction.

If you’re doing this today, start rethinking your entire support system. Poor customer service is a leading cause of churn for service-based businesses (including SaaS). In fact, 39% of consumers surveyed by TechSee reported churning because they were asked to “explain their problem more than once (or to more than one representative).”

One solution is to increase the level of capability and training individual representatives have. A common method is to assign a single point of contact for customer service requests. This person should be able to make decisions and help customers without needing to escalate the issue to another individual. Their only job is to help the customer solve their problem on the first contact.

Complex organizations may find this option to be difficult to implement, but this does not require hiring expert-level support. Consider how Brex handles it. When Brex receives a complex request from a customer, their representatives consult with the appropriate department on behalf of the customer. They handle all communication between the individual department and the customer, so the customer only has to explain their question once.

If a customer comes to them with a question about how their account is underwritten, for example, they forward the question to the underwriting team on behalf of their customer. The customer does not need to repeat their question several times to get an answer.

While this is easier to implement through live chat or by email, it can still be done over the phone. Consider asking the customer for a follow-up email address that you can send additional information to and then promise to follow up with the customer with an answer. Be sure to use a system like a CRM system to make sure you follow up on behalf of the customer and deliver a response in a timely manner.

If you manage a team of representatives, be sure to coach them to provide a specific deadline to customers. You can actually increase trust by delivering on what you promise, even if it takes a few days.

And, if you discover a type of request that is being commonly made by your customers, consider how you’ll decrease friction here for getting answers. Perhaps you record the answer to every novel request in an internal knowledge base that every representative can access. Or you work with IT to purchase, implement or develop a system for communicating between departments.

Depending on the sophistication of your customer, you may even want to make these knowledge base articles publicly available. Don’t forget the option of improving self-help tools for your customers.

Misalignment #3: Customer-facing functions are not aligned

Photo by Arlington Research on Unsplash

Speaking of communication between departments, the lack of cross-functional alignment is a missed opportunity for many organizations. Instead of organizing your organization around the tasks done by individuals, consider connecting people around a common purpose.

For example, CX is not just the domain of support. It also involves sales, marketing, product management, and even engineering. In other words, CX is highly cross-functional by nature. It should be owned by more than just your support team.

The first step to improving cross-functional alignment around a customer is to create a Customer Journey Map. A Customer Journey Map describes each interaction a customer has with your company, from the first time they learn about your business until they become a customer.

Polaine, Løvlie, and Reason. 2013. Service Design: From Insight to Implementation. New York: Rosenfeld Media. Via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

While journey maps are commonly used by marketing teams to model the personas they sell to, it is important to extend the journey map to after the sale is made. That is, it is important to use the journey map to not only align your sales and marketing teams around how your customers go from prospect to lead to sale but also use it to describe the relationship your company has with customers after the sale.

There are numerous opportunities to improve alignment in post-sales activities within your organization.

One area is to create a unified brand message strategy that everybody in the company is trained on. If each member of your team cannot provide the same answer to “who are we”, “what do we believe”, “what do we offer our customers”, and “why does it matter,” then your team is not aligned. It is like having a friend describe you to a new person but getting every detail about who you are wrong. In fact, your customers are doing exactly that with their friends: if they don’t understand what your company truly does, then they’re telling their friends the wrong story about your company or product.

Another method for improving alignment is to use a shared system for tracking customer interactions. Customer support should use the same Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software as sales and marketing. While traditionally support teams have not been users of CRM software, providing your support team with the same level of access to customer data can help improve visibility into the customer that support is interacting with. We also recommend selecting service desk software that integrates with your CRM for this reason — information flow between support and sales helps boost both functions.

We also recommend empowering your support team to think carefully about how they can help customers. One of the lesser-known facts surrounding support calls is that they often present the best opportunity to upsell related products and services. When done right, they can also be a way to bolster a renewal for subscription-based services. Many customers are willing to spend money with a company that treats them well and is responsive to their needs.

That’s why we suggest cross-training employees who work in customer-facing roles. Sales should field support calls. Support should join sales on prospecting, demo, negotiation, and closing calls. Support should also read marketing materials and be aware of the communications coming out of marketing (we also suggest marketing shadow both the sales and marketing teams).

Cross-training employees help to create unity in your company’s customer-facing roles. It helps increase empathy and understanding. Cross-training also provides your support team with the ability to create new opportunities rather than just dealing with issues — this helps support go from a cost center to a value center.

Closing thoughts

Customer support requires strong alignment between functions in your organization and with your customer. The better you are able to align your people around a common set of beliefs, actions, and systems, the more likely you are to have high customer retention, low churn, and a high NPS score.

Alignment of support teams requires active management and a defined strategy. It is not simply enough to put the systems in place — you must implement, then measure the success of these systems. We wrote previously about the importance of review in maintaining alignment. There’s nothing more important than monitoring and reviewing alignment when it comes to customer support.

When you combine a robust alignment strategy with intelligent execution, you can use CX and customer support to increase profitability and drive new value creation as a business. Revenue, customer mention, and growth are no longer KPIs just for a sales team; these metrics are integral to all customer-centric functions. Great leaders align every customer-facing role around these priorities.