Silo: A tall cylindrical structure, usually beside a barn, in which fodder is stored.
At what point does structure prohibit innovation? At what does does hyper-specific task definition prevent and an enhanced customer Experience? And at what point do silos begin to develop sub-silos within themselves that drive great ideas deeper underground?
I understand the functional purpose of a silo. They ensure some level of accountability. They provide focus and, for lack of a better phrase, a ‘job description.’ They give something for managers to oversee and shape towards something better. All good and necessary things. However, I’m increasingly convinced that, in almost every company I’ve worked with, that silos have their limitations in terms of enhancing the total customer Experience. In other words, silos foster vertical communication rather than horizontal idea sharing. When things go right it’s easy to target Silo X as the source of greatness. When things go poorly it’s equally easy to lay blame on Silo Y as the culprit. But in the customer’s eyes the differences between X and Y are irrelevant. They simply know they had a sub-standard Experience that is reflective of the entire organization. And everything crumbles.
Recently a client brought me in to help conduct a sales planning and training seminar. The entire administration team, management, owners, and sales staff participated. It was a ‘first’ for this company. But they had expanded into two states and felt it was time to reassess their market strategy in order to improve consistency and results. Moreover, the client was (and is) facing intense competition from similar organizations. It was time to determine the ways to differentiate and capitalize on lost opportunity.
Over the course of the first day we learned the following:
1. People felt as though they worked largely in isolation and felt they had to make independent decisions
2. Basic communication mechanisms were broken at many points
3. There was gross disparity in basic customer/sales materials and messages
4. Problem solving processes were ‘word of mouth’ at best and did not include detailed follow through
5. The sales team’s blended close ratio had slipped below 20%
6.. Everyone thought they were ‘doing their part’ just fine
It was important that the owners hear this. Their managers had been assigned the important task of managing silos. And they did. But in the practical application of a sales and market strategy the lack of communication, idea sharing, and process development between the silos had withered. Their customers were experiencing a series of fragmented touch-points in which communication, sales tactics, customer management and problem resolution seemed to exist in a fragmented bizarro-business. And they were voting with their wallet.
It wasn’t all bleak. There were people that were experiencing success. A salesman had devised and developed a very effective tool for communicating product benefits. An administrator had built her own micro-network within the existing follow up process to smartly move information. Yet another had taken to the habit of sending e-cards to customers as a way of saying ‘thanks.’ All great ideas. But what we all realized is that sub-silos had been created. These pockets of brilliance were successful on an individual level but had no impact of the broader customer Experience. There was no sharing mechanism to help others become equally successful. The Hero Factor had supplanted the Heroes Factor.
An Experience does not exist in isolation. It is the product of a series of positive, interconnected ‘acts’ that draw the customer deeper in to the business. There is cohesion and continuity. The customer doesn’t fall through the cracks once the curtain rises. With that realization–that the customer was being short changed at the expense of preserving “functional” silos (and that the bottom line was being severely punished along the way) we began asking some simple questions in order to repair the problem:
1. What information MUST the entire team know about the purpose and practice of each other’s role in the company as it pertained to improving the customer Experience?
2. How could one silo improve the likelihood of success of the next silo?
3. When customer service problems arose how could each function contribute to better, faster resolution?
4. Was there a regular and open forum for sharing best practices and fresh ideas?
5. What role did management play in encouraging cross-silo sharing and total team improvement?
6. Did ownership set a clear vision for the quality of customer Experience they wanted to create?
7. Were customers invited to participate in service improvement initiatives?
8. Was each ‘act’ of the customer Experience clearly defined?
9. What materials were required to make this happen?
10. What measurements would we use to track improvement?
I’d love to say that this was an easy discussion. It wasn’t. There were people who were defensive. There were people who raised their eyebrows with that “Sounds great–we’ve had enough ‘flash in the pan’ feel-good talks before.” And there were people that, at a gut level, knew that the company’s future growth was never going to happen unless something changed and people actually with each other to create a better Experience. Regardless of the reaction the point was clear: Maintaining rigid silos had done little to create a vibrant, creative, enthusiastic Experience culture.
We spent the next three days addressing the pertinent questions. Almost everyone had an opinion about the best ways to move forward. Managers started to let their guards down. Administrators spoke with lucid intelligence about sales improvement. Sales people provided exciting, practical suggestions for problem solving. Owners talked about ‘big picture’ visions of a first-class Experience that would create the market differentiation they hoped for. Finally, plans were made and measurements were put in place. We’d taken the early steps toward a defined Experience.
It’s been three months since that meeting. Some of the participants are no longer with this company, believing that the direction is wrongheaded. However, their weekly ‘fishbowl’ meeting at which everyone is invited to assess the program’s evolution, have sparked a renewed commitment execution. Cross-silo idea sharing has become terrifically common. Managers are working closely with one another as well. Their blended close ratio has increased to 26% and Owners have set a clear 40% minimum target–believing that the value of the total Experience creates the differentiation needed to push back against competitors.
Silos serve a practical function. I’m not discounting that. But amazing things can happen when the contents are viewed less as “fodder” and more as the future.
10. Who else needed to be involved?