Break down the damn silos!!

“A siloed organization cannot act quickly on opportunities that arise in a fast-paced business landscape, nor is it able to make productive decisions about how to change in order to seize these opportunities.” — John Kotter

I just spent the last two days with a great group of guys in New York City.  Side note: If you’ve never been (and I hadn’t) then get there.  Mind blown.

Ostensibly I was there to talk about lead conversion and increasing the team’s mix.  Practical.  Shortly after the first round of ball-busting was over (these guys are ball busting impresarios) something surprising happened.  The entire agenda virtually went out the window and a new, far more significant, meeting was born…

One of the guys said: “When something goes wrong I call the sales manager.  He gets paid to work it out.  Not my problem.”  The sales manager, sitting in the back of the room, took umbrage: “How am I supposed to fix your problem if the paperwork takes a day or two to get to me?”  Another voice chimed in, “I’d call you more often but you’re always busy and I know that the secretary is already swamped so I try and wait for her to have a break.”  And that’s how it continued for the next eye-opening hour.  It’d be wrong to simplify it as “venting” because we all learned that sunlight is the best disinfectant:

* Nobody has even the most basic point-of-sale brochures to share product or maintenance plan information with customers

* A recently promoted technician had been waiting for over a month for uniforms (he’d been wearing a Yankees t-shirt to work)

* The technicians never learned about the results of a submitted lead so they had a difficult time tracking their spiffs

* The lack of lead tracking communication meant that most of the technicians had stopped caring about submitting leads

* A recently purchased (and expensive) flat rate book was only being used by 1/3 of the team.  Most were ignoring it altogether

* The sales manager’s performance expectations were inconsistently communicated across the team

* Technicians had exonerated themselves from the post-service/sale customer service process

* A verbal commitment to invest in tablets and mobile payment technology had been left unfulfilled for too long

* Maintenance plan payment methods had been adjusted to accommodate a monthly payment and the techs has no idea

And on and on it went.  At some point we had to literally take a break because the “list” was starting to become absurd.  But there it was.  The List.  I’d love to say that this is an anomaly.  But as I conduct and increasing number of private client visits I’m convinced that allowing a team to meet together is (shocking) a sure-fire way to kick over a few rocks and realize that most businesses are suffocating in silos.  The remainder of our time was spent actually mending up the problems or developing steps to mend the problems.  It was time very well spent because the client will make more money and will have a stronger culture.

In the 1990’s an HVAC consultant told me that “Managers manage, salespeople sell, and installers install.”  Simplistic and theoretically practical.  But in The Experience Economy the quickest way to devolve a team so that it falls on its face, distrusts the other silos, and fails to deliver Ritz-Carlton service is to divide and isolate people.  Such a blatantly autocratic attitude towards people and management betrays a type of thinking that views “human resources” as “resources” first and “humans” coming in at a distant second.  I probably don’t need to list the reasons why silos are bad for business:

* Distrust.  Technicians distrust salespeople.  Salespeople distrust each other.  Management feels painted in to a corner.

* Poor accountability.  “It’s not my problem…” attitudes means the customer gets the short end of the stick

* Limited creativity. Someone has a great idea and no platform to share it.  Another lost opportunity to engage.

* Lost profitability.  No follow-up.  Tons of call backs.  Negative feedback from customers.  Lots of negative feedback.  ‘Nuff said.

Aaaaaaaand the awkward moment when the manager who put the team together “smiles” at the realization that his purported “team” isn’t much more than a group of largely self-interested men and women who show up, cash a check, go home, and call it day.  All year long. (Full disclosure: At the end of the two days the manager and the owner of the business sat me down and humbly admitted that “they had no idea how bad it was getting.”)

When I think about the HVAC industry I think about broken stories.  Every business tells a story but most business’ in our industry tell a broken one. Tthe silos that i saw in NYC are the very same silos that suffocate innovation and new success elsewhere. Perhaps it’s just the nature of the trade.  But there’s a sea change happening.  Slowly.  Usually in smaller companies that are nimbler than their larger competitors.  Slowly.  I’m working with owners and managers who are thinking differently about their organizational charts.  They’re flattening them out.  They’re developing cross-functinal projects and sharing.  They’re creating opportunities for folks who would normally not communicate to communicate.  Most importantly they’re asking THE most important question: Does our company culture result in an irresistibly awesome experience for our customers?

The guys in New York were amazing.  Jake and Vinnie and Tattoo Kurt and Mahmoud and Alex and the 10 others were open and honest and funny and willing to take a few steps forward toward together.  I love it when that happens. Ttaking down the walls and creating a new kind of business structure/model/web takes time.  The gains far outstrip the work needed to make it happen.  Just break down the damn silos!

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