Is customer service a department or an activity? It is both. However, where a person resides in an organization, the attitude displayed, and actions supported by senior management will determine each person’s view of whether customer service is a department or activity. This differentiation may seem to be inconsequential, but its implications can have far reaching effects on the organization and, more importantly, customers’ perceptions and their actions.
By necessity, as companies begin to grow, they typically form a Customer Service Department to manage the customer service activity. It may start out as one person; perhaps a person with primary responsibility for sales administration or quality assurance testing. Over time, as the company acquires more customers, the department will grow. Invariably, a customer service “silo” will appear and take its “rightful place” alongside other department silos. Such is the nature of all organizations. The article in this collection “Silo is a Four-Letter Word” describes how department silos naturally form and, in most cases, slow responsiveness to issues as they occur. Fortunately, the silo walls in some organizations are more like screens and are very porous, allowing the free flow of information and cooperation between functional elements. Unfortunately, silo walls in other organizations are rigid, thick, and almost impenetrable requiring a significant effort to bridge. In those organizations, the comment “That’s not my job” is seldom made out loud, but their actions reflect that attitude. Similarly, some individuals may be fixated on protecting “their turf” and take subtle or overt action reflecting the attitude of “That’s my job, not yours.”
Among all of the silos that form in an organization, the customer service silo (department) is probably impacted the most by the real or artificial barriers caused by silos. As discussed in the article, “What is Customer Service”, the fundamental role of a customer service organization is to resolve customer issues. Unfortunately, in many instances, they are given the responsibility to resolve issues but are not given the authority or the tools to do so. Instead, they must rely on others, in different silos, who invariably have different priorities. By its very nature, the customer service activity is interrupt driven, required to respond when customers call with issues when they occur and not on some prescheduled or allotted time. Virtually all other activities in an organization consist of the performance of planned activities. To be fair, unscheduled interruptions do occur - such as parts shortages or manufacturing process hiccups, unexpected competitive initiatives, or the discovery of software or hardware defects that require immediate attention. However, in the overall scheme of things, these unscheduled events, although they can be serious, are the exception, not the norm. For customer service, the exception, an unscheduled customer issue, is the norm.
Ideally, the Customer Service Department should be able to resolve any and all issues raised by customers. Unfortunately, it is simply not possible in all cases. So, the Customer Service Department when performing customer service activities, needs to rely on others in the organization that, frankly, have different goals, objectives, and performance metrics that may be impacted if they “help” the Customer Service Department resolve “their” issue. Of course, this attitude is not spoken or supported by management but is a fact of life for most organizations. Plaques declaring that “Customer Service is Everyone’s Responsibility” or “The Customer Comes First”, or even, Principle Four: “Continuously Delight Each Customer” may fill the walls, but are hard to follow when a person is tasked with performing other activities and is being measured on their performance of those activities.
Unfortunately, there is no easy solution to this issue. Publicly discussing it with everyone in the organization helps to relieve the frustration caused by the naturally occurring conflicted goals of performing one’s assigned tasks and still being able to help resolve immediate customer issues. If possible, designate individuals who are responsible for customer service activities in each department that are not part of the Customer Service Department. Make customer issue resolution assistance part of their job and promote an attitude of “issue ownership” with them.