An Investment in Collaboration Creates Trust and Better Customer Service

Social service providers often struggle with providing their customers with a seamless delivery experience. One of our clients began wondering if they could improve their outcomes by further integrating their many services to their customers and asked us to help them.

Siloed decision-making results in poor decisions

We spoke with many employees who represented multiple services, and many spoke about their desire to break down silos and deliver services with a team approach. They described cold transfers between one team to another, resulting in (and fed by) mistrust between departments. They also described a drawn-out process in which employees felt uninformed, frustrated by an incomplete picture of their customers’ needs, and frustrated by an expectation that they make decisions based on their own incomplete picture. Employees did not defend the status quo; in fact they wished they could be given the support to be more collaborative in serving their customers.

Personally, I’ve had working experiences where collaboration was actively and deliberately discouraged. The reason given was that people didn’t have time to make joint decisions. Collaboration was seen, I felt, as a weakness, to the point where I was gently coached on how to make decisions all by myself like a grownup. I have no problem deciding things all day long. It feels powerful to be made to believe that my opinion is the only one that matters. But generally speaking, decisions I make in isolation won’t be as good, as meaningful, or as well thought out as they would be if I had others’ brains at my table.

It feels good to just tick things off your list: check, check, check. It may seem that avoiding collaboration is more efficient in the short term, so if your business is to be efficient, you may be better off not supporting a collaborative environment. But if you’re in the business of serving customers, the long-term cost can be lowered productivity and frustration among both your employees and your customers. If you need to quantify the cost of not collaborating, start measuring, for example: how satisfied customers are with their service delivery; how many errors are made (i.e. in the service delivery process); why employees quit (via exit interviews); and employees’ knowledge of other departments, such as contacts or basic information about other services. Together, these metrics can help make your case for investing in collaboration.

What it looks like to support collaboration

Everyone likes to say they are customer-focused. My impression, however, is that few organizations put enough money where their mouths are. Being truly customer-focused requires giving your people more time to collaborate. That literally means they spend time together, listen to each other, wait for each other to put their thoughts together and formulate collective insight. And on top of all that, they have to spend the time evaluating diverse opinions or accommodating various ideas. What a drag!

Valuing collaboration, if truly embodied, turns into an investment in people’s time. Our client’s employees recognized that too. On the front lines, many experienced examples of collaborative teamwork, and those examples shined like stars in their minds because they were able to achieve great results for their customers. As they told their stories of collaboration, they spoke warmly of their colleagues in other departments. That overall culture of mistrust didn’t apply in those cases.

On the ground, an investment in collaboration takes the shape of increased communication. And by increasing communication, you lay the groundwork for increased trust.

I am currently on a team at DeYoung Consulting Services, a firm that values collaboration, and it didn’t take me long to see real positive results from it. First, we catch each other’s oversights. For example, my brain focuses more on the big picture than details, but thankfully I have colleagues whose brains are detail-oriented. Because we are in constant communication, and no one assumes the others know something, we move forward confidently and able to defend our decisions. Second, we learn to wear different lenses in our work. Before I hand something off to a colleague, I can already hear her unique insight in my head, so I put on her lens to check my own work. (And to my surprise, some detail-spotting skills have rubbed off on me!)

There are many tools to facilitate collaboration, and I’ll give examples of what we use, but the tools are not the main message here. Without giving people actual time to collaborate and communicate, the tools won’t do anything. That said, we rely heavily on an audio messaging app, in addition to email and phone calls. We schedule biweekly hour-and-a-half team meetings, in addition to quick check-ins about projects. Collaboration could mean more meetings (or very possibly, just different meetings), but if you are deliberate about hearing everyone’s perspective so they feel they have a stake in the decisions, meetings should move toward better decisions. And good decisions make happy customers.