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Creating flow in customer service though lean principles and self-organizing teams

—March 09, 2015
Creating flow in customer service though lean principles and self-organizing teams

By Lisa Pieterse, Senior Manager, Product Knowledge and Learning, Auto Physical Damage


The Repair Customer Relationship Group has gone through a major growth journey over the past two and a half years. Much cheese was moved, many new processes were introduced, and much of that was not comfortable, but the result of the transformation is a high performing team who are engaged and invested in continuous improvement.

The challenges
In 2013 we had a team of individuals responsible for customer service who each served one territory. Each of our representatives was passionate about helping the customers in their territories but many of the big hairy customer issues were falling through the cracks in overloaded email boxes. As a result we had very little ability to track what was still outstanding and there was a lot of noise for our sales teams. We were asking our reps to do a lot but the tools they had were not aiding them in doing the work. It was also hard to tell if and where we were overloaded as a team and where our bottlenecks were. When reps took time off, their work piled up while customers waited because their team mates had no visibility into their inboxes. In summary – there was no way to quantify or track the work, and there were too many single points of failure.

The goal
The goal was to build a high-performing team who was empowered to prioritize the MANY different customer service needs they were asked to meet on a daily basis while also keeping our accounts receivable backlog under control.

The journey
Borrowing from LEAN: First we needed to address the way work was entering and flowing through our system. We moved from a system in which customers emailed and called individual reps directly, to technology-enabled work queues in SalesForce and INContact the way our partners in the technical assistance center manage their work. Doing this eliminated the bottleneck of individual reps owning individual territories, and raised visibility out of inboxes.

This gave us a great starting point-we had visibility. We could see the Work In Process and began to quantify our workstreams and capacity needs. This also led us to discover some previously hidden bottlenecks. Our work queues seemed to flow along fairly predictably…until a BIG customer issue entered the system. Those big issues often took two to six hours (or more) of touch time to resolve. Some reps continued to serve the needs of the majority of their customers, but at the expense of the customers with the biggest, loudest issues, while other reps took on the big, loud issues, and saw their backlog of smaller cases pile up. We needed a way to keep flow in the system while preserving our ability to quarterback these bigger issues.

Our solution was to team up agents who were good at handing the big issues, with agents who were great at keeping the stream of more predictable work flowing.

Borrowing from AGILE:
Teaming in our organization was also a journey. It was an adjustment for folks used to working fairly autonomously, now working on a case queue that was owned by three people. What was the best way for them to divide and conquer? I admit that for the first week or so of us moving to case queues I spent WAY too much time watching along with the team and trying to guide prioritization. That was clearly a very expensive way for me to achieve better outcomes, and a poor way to build empowered and engaged teams.

Coming from the Product Management side of the house, I leant on my experience with agile and looked for ways to encourage self-organization on the teams.   The answer was to empower the teams to plan their own work and hold one another accountable to achieve results together in the most efficient way possible. We created some tools for the Account Managers (who operate as team leads) to use historical service data in their territory to forecast service needs for the month and plan their outbound workload together with their team. This was a learning experience for everyone, but it has turned out to be a powerful success factor for us.

The teams get so much energy from working together and because they collaborate to meet customer needs, the customer gets better and more creative service outcomes through the team’s collective wisdom. They hold each other accountable, encourage each other and actively manage and monitor their queues, which frees their managers up to look for new ways to improve efficiency rather than spending time in heavy-handed monitoring activities.

The outcome
Fast forward to 2015. The outcome of this lean/agile journey (or this milestone along the way because the journey will never be over) is a team of customer service professionals who actively own the planning and results in their territories and who proactively pursue creative ways to improve our internal processes and maximize outcomes for their books of business. We recently spun off the Customer Success team who joined sales to focus on more targeted customer retention initiatives. We now have four territory teams instead of five and territory sizes have increased, but the teams have pulled together, adjusted to their larger territories and are already executing at a high level just two weeks later. Some of our team leads are even starting to own reporting out on their own KPI success which is fantastic! There is some friendly competition between teams, which is healthy, and we also sprinkle in a healthy dose of fun.

We continue to look for ways to apply lean-agile principles to the work that we do – not least of which, the obligatory avatars and team names. Come down to our area outside the Cuyamaca conference room in San Diego and check out our Avatar Org chart! Life is too short not to have fun at work!

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