Customer-Centric Thinking Is Good for the Back Office Too

My wife is a recruiter working in high technology. Recruiters are like every other profession: There are some bad ones, a bunch in the middle who are competent, and some who are truly excellent. I may be biased, but I think she falls into the latter category.

Here’s why I think she’s so good: She thinks of the managers she’s hiring for as her customers, and she spends a lot of time getting to know them and their needs for specific job roles. She also gauges their personalities and factors that into her recruiting. A person who’s qualified on paper but who is used to a hands-off manager may not be the best fit for a nervous, always-involved manager, for instance.

What does this have to do with CRM? Well, I think it goes to an idea I’ve had for a long time about businesses. In every business, it’s understood what “the customer” means: It’s the person or business that buys your services or your products. Sales, marketing and service understand this because they interact with those customers.

But what about the so-called back-office employees? Do they have customers? You bet they do — but they don’t think of them as such. Instead, they’re the bosses, the people in other departments, or just ordinary coworkers who rely on other people’s actions to get their jobs done.

Your Customers Are in the Building

If the goal is to create a customer-centric business, the concept of customer needs to be expanded. After all, back-office functionality is increasingly visible to the paying customers, and the trend toward driving CRM and ERP together in the form of business suites blurs the line between those applications. It also blurs the line between internal customers and external customers.

If your business culture is functioning well, the “customer culture” is already in place. It’s the idea that people are there to serve other people — not in the current sense of the word “service” but in a broader sense of acknowledging the interdependence of all the people in the organization and valuing those relationships.

If you can foster that sort of thinking internally, then extending that thinking to your external customers isn’t that difficult. If you can’t get your employees on that track, then you’ll have a fight on your hands.

Here’s an example of what I mean by this internal/external customer idea: A paying customer calls the service line of your business. Most calls that come into service are handled there, but in this case it’s a thornier problem involving a technical question, and whether the resolution of that question will result in any extra charges to the paying customer. Answering that question depends on input from the technical side of your business — usually, from people who don’t deal with external customers — and from the manager in charge of billing in the company.

In order to get the problem solved, the technician and the manager have to be able to shift into the realization that they are now the customers of the service agent. They also need to know that time is of the essence and prioritize their part in this chain of interdependent customers. After they satisfy their customer, the agent can then satisfy the paying customer.

In too many cases, this sort of internal interaction is not handled in an effective and speedy way. Many requests for help go into the black hole of unresolved trouble tickets, or end up as emails that go unheeded. That’s because the people within the organization who could help service lack that customer orientation.

That’s a simple example. Sales and marketing also depend on back-office employees to come through when they need them in order to succeed. They need fellow employees to be as committed to them as customers as they need to be toward the paying customer.

Avoid Lose-Lose Situations

How do you foster that attitude? It starts with hiring, of course, but it needs to be reinforced on a regular basis. Customer-facing people naturally hate letting down the customer, because it leads to lost sales and defecting customers. Internally, however, you’re unlikely for your sales guy to immediately quit when the warehouse manager can’t take the time to tell him if the product he’s selling is in stock.

However, it’s likely to make your sales guy look unresponsive to the people he’s selling to. That will result in a lost sale, and while the sales guy will bear the initial brunt of the blame, the ultimate effect on the company is attributable to all involved.

As a manager, you need to work internally to make sure people in back-office roles are clear on how vital they are to serving the paying customer, and how that depends on their desire to serve their customers within the business. If your employees aren’t there to serve — not just the end customers, but their fellow employees — there’s no real reason for them to be there in the first place.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz blogs about CRM at Forecasting Clouds. He has been a technology journalist for 15 years and has immersed himself in the world of CRM since 2006. When he's not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he's wearing his airplane geek hat; he's written three books on World War II aviation.

1 Comment

  • Chris, thanks for the great article. I completely agree with your points about how the back office employees need to understand how vital they are to the customer experience and therefore how they need to be responsive to their internal customers. There is a revolution in many companies today as their back offices are working more closely with their contact centers to improve the customer experience and operational efficiency. In these companies, many back offices and contact centers are sharing work and therefore sharing processes and technology. This revolution is being helped by new desktop technologies that provide the ability for back offices to be run more efficiently by giving visibility into how employees do their work, tracking the handing of each back office work item and ensuring that SLAs are met. The data gathered from these new technologies allows for detailed performance management and workforce management that the back offices could never do in the past with limited and infrequent time and motion study data. These tools can also connect the dots between the back office work and the contact center by providing the real-time status of back office work items for the contact center agents to have at their fingertips when the customers call for an update. With these new tools and the adoption of the advice that you have given in this article, the future of customer service across the back office and contact center is bright.

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