Five Barriers to Customer Engagement

by Diane Berenbaum

A customer demands to know when he will receive his product. The service representative does not have access to that information, since that is the responsibility of another department. She tells the customer that he'll "have to call a different number." As a result, the customer cancels the order and takes his business elsewhere.

Another customer wants an order expedited due to an urgent situation. He used an old form, but wants the representative to make the changes so he can get the material by his deadline. Since he used the "wrong form," he is told he needs to obtain the right form and submit it again for consideration.

Sound familiar? These scenarios are happening every day. You've heard the tell-tale signs—phrases such as "we can't do that," that's not our policy," "you'll have to talk to another department," and so on. They are indicators of internal organizational barriers—barriers that are not only impacting efficiency and productivity, but also chipping away at customer engagement and your reputation. They are profoundly harmful.

That's the bad news. Now, the good news: According to Gallup's "Tearing Down the Barriers to Success" in the Gallup Management Journal (February 2011), "barriers to an organization's effectiveness are internally built and locally maintained." In other words, they are problems companies create for themselves. And, since they have been created internally, organizations have the power and capability to change them.

Tom Rieger of Gallup notes that "policies and practices that become barriers are created with the best of intentions: to protect a particular individual's or group's ability to meet a goal or objective. The policy or practice makes sense at the time to the person who puts it in place. However, when meeting local needs conflicts with the needs of the organization—or when checking off a box becomes more important than achieving strategic goals-barriers are born."

Five Causes of Barrier Building

Gallup found that barriers result from the following:

1.  Fear, including fear of loss, conflict and repercussion. Fear that breeds timidity, defensiveness, and blame. This can lead to excessive control, bureaucratic processes, and ultimately to silos and decisions that serve individual entities, but not the organization.

2.  Information Flow. Gallup identifies two types:
  • Transmission: When information does not get into the hands of those who need it. This may be because it is not accessible or one group is blocking that information from others.
  • Assimilation: When there is too much information and not enough time or resources to process it.
3.  Short-term thinking, which can be:
  • "Sins of omission," when decisions are made too quickly, or without consulting those who must live with the consequences, or
  • "Sins of commission," when long-term issues are known but ignored or rationalized away.
4.  Misalignment barriers, such as:
  • different departments' goals that often put them in direct opposition
  • no clear link between personal and organizational missions
  • lack of clear mission, vision or strategy.
5.  Money barriers, which range from:
  • departments protecting their budgets and headcount even when the organization needs to change, to
  • individuals manipulating the bonus system at the expense of others.

Four Steps to Breaking Down Barriers

So how do you bust the barriers in your organization? Here are four ways to get you started:

  • 1.  Acknowledge the presence of barriers. Just recognizing they exist and openly talking about them sends a positive as well as a refreshing message to your organization.
  • 2.  Make your associates your business partners, as Ken Blanchard suggests in his new book, Lead with LUV. Ask your associates to identify the barriers. They know them—they are working around them on a regular basis. Provide a safe way for them to share their observations. Acknowledge and reward their contributions. You'll be amazed at the valuable information you'll uncover.
  • 3.  Conduct a thorough review of your policies, processes and practices. Identify those that are not designed with the customer in mind; those that are costing you time and money, ultimately damaging your relationships and your reputation as well.
  • 4.  Act on your findings. Don't stop after identifying the barriers—eliminate them. Revamp, revise or streamline processes based on your organizational input. Communicate the new processes to ensure the organization knows you've not only listened, but have taken appropriate action as well.

Barrier-busting Yields Measurable Impact

Removing barriers can produce dramatic results. Think about the impact on your associates when they don't need to work around the barriers or deliver as much "bad news" to customers.

And, consider the impact on performance. Gallup revealed the following successes from barrier removal:
  • A customer service center changed its national ranking from worst to first.
  • In a retail bank, divisions that tore down barriers saw improvements in key metrics that far exceeded gains that other parts of the network experienced.
  • A hospital chain had sharp increases in employee engagement compared to facilities that did not participate in barrier removal work.
  • A financial services firm realized a 10% reduction in turnover.
  • A nutritional company achieved a boost in sales conversions of nearly 10%.

What will you achieve if you take the time to identity and remove organizational barriers?  Perhaps it's time to bust some barriers and see for yourself.
Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
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