Creating Customer-Focused Teams

What is a Team?

The word “team” has become so overused in business that it gets applied to just about any group of humans in a work setting. However, when you define a team as everything, you end up with nothing.

The best and most concise definition for corporate teams I have found comes fromThe Wisdom of Teams by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith. They define a team as

“a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”

The crucial words are “common purpose” and “mutually accountable.” Without these, you don’t have a team.

In addition, for a team to exist there has to be adversity and tension between the team and the attainment of the common purpose. No adversity means no team. You don’t need teams for easy tasks. Tough challenges and high performance standards are essential for teams to come together and coalesce.

Customer Focus, Feedback and Service Strategy

To create customer-focused teams, employees must understand that they win personally and professionally when the customers win. Every service strategy needs to be designed so that this concept is constantly reinforced.

The front line (people who directly impact the customer or directly impact a process or product that impacts the customer) has to get feedback so that it can:

  • Know what it is doing right
  • Know what it is doing that is not working
  • Coordinate and fix problems with other departments
  • Ensure that the customer consistently perceives great valueThe challenge is getting the voice of the customer clearly delivered to the front line regarding the service or product. Therefore, it is important to create forums and opportunities for the front line to listen to the customer. The other challenge is to make sure everyone understands that “great” is the standard, and “extraordinary” is the goal.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Stages of DevelopmentLike people, teams go through different phases during their development. A two-year old human is very different than a 16-year-old in every area of development. Likewise, a team that has been together two months behaves very differently than a team that has been together 16 months.

    There are five stages of development for customers focused teams, each with its own distinct characteristics:

  • Stage 1 – Getting to Know You
  • A feeling that this could be fun combined with some anxiety about how to do it
  • A degree of excitement about the concept of team
  • Figuring out who is in charge
  • Clarifying the rules and developing standards
  • Dependence is on the coach/leader
  • Coach/leader uses a directive approach
  • Stage 2 – Wish We Weren’t Here
  • A feeling that this is not fun
  • Leadership and/or members are all screwed up
  • Feeling that “something is definitely wrong here”
  • Feeling uncertain and incapable
  • Performance standards not being met and there is a lot of finger pointing
  • Little agreement among team members regarding standards
  • Customer focus is rhetoric only
  • A lot of internal strife and no sense of mutual accountability
  • Task driven but a lot of individual agendas
  • Performance standards are not agreed upon
  • Stage 3 – Getting Behind the Game
  • Performance standards get hammered out
  • Increasing ownership of those standards
  • Decreasing hostility as the team begins working out personal differences
  • Focus is on the customers
  • Starting to like and feel comfortable with mutual accountability
  • Positive feedback from customers starting to come in
  • More honesty among team members
  • Failing forward — learning and improving from trial and error, with rapid recovery from mistakes
  • Enthusiasm and energy levels increasing
  • Support for each other evident
  • Small wins bring large smiles
  • Stage 4 – High Performance
  • Customers are consistently overwhelmed by the service and product
  • Team standards are met and moved outwardly by the team
  • Members feeling good about consistency
  • Shared leadership
  • Open and honest communication
  • Meetings are full of straight talk
  • Results are recognized by customers as high performance
  • Members feel deep concern for each other’s personal growth and success
  • The team outperforms all reasonable expectations
  • Team members are having a lot of fun
  • Stage 5 – The Times They Are A-Changing
  • A major change occurs, such as members joining or leaving, a new coach, new performance standards, etc.
  • Confusion
  • Uncertainty regarding the implications of change                                                                                                                                                                                                           Developmental Stage MovementIn time, Stage 1 teams arrive at Stage 2. Stage 2 teams will either get stuck in Stage 2 or move on to Stage 3. Stage 3 teams can slip back into Stage 2 or move on to Stage 4. Progress or slippage depends on whether the team builds on its momentum or rests on its laurels. In Stage 4, the team can move on through consistent improvement or slip back by becoming arrogant and overconfident. Keep in mind that none of these stages are good or bad. They are necessary stepping-stones in the process that leads to high performance.

    In the process of development, teams most often get stuck in Stage 2. In order to move to Stage 3, the team must hammer out the performance standards and commitment to achieving them. Also, team goals must become more important than personal agendas, which need to be congruent and in alignment with the group agenda.

    In Stage 3, the group starts to take on a life of its own and begins to aggressively move in the direction of its performance standards.

    Stage 4 is where teams come into their own and truly create customer loyalty. If the team becomes relentless in providing superior products and anticipating the changing needs of the customer, it becomes possible to become indispensable to your customers. Equally important to customer focus is internal responsiveness for employees and shareholders who directly benefit from high performance with increased earnings. This is the win/win/win stage of development.

    Stage 5 is a bit tricky because it can occur at any phase of development and can be triggered by any change that significantly alters the team. Examples include gaining or losing a member, altering the performance standards or receiving a new coach. Similarly, a major change in the internal or external environment will impact the team’s progress. Examples of this type of change include new products or services, new customers or a change in rules and regulations.                                                                                                                                                                              Points to Remember

  • Customer-focused teams and victims (people who refuse responsibility and accountability for their behavior) don’t go together. Members have to want to make the team successful. You cannot mandate a team with a group of victims.

    Also, enemies and customer-focused teams do not go together. Team members must have a basic regard for each other. They don’t have to love each other, but at minimum they should have mutual professional respect.

    Expect conflict. Because performance standards are high, you will experience differing points of view on how to achieve them. Open dialogue and discussion are useful to moving things forward. Remember that it does not matter who is right, but that the customer is served in an extraordinary fashion.

    Finally, don’t be afraid to experiment. Customer service strategies need to be planned, but it helps to be flexible and try new ideas that will make your organization indispensable to the people it serves.

    Bruce Hodes is president of CMI, a consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, high performance team development and organizational development.

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