Let's suppose that you have responsibility for Product Marketing, an important function in your organization. To meet your objectives, you depend on infrastructure, services, and resources that other organizations in your company have promised to supply. For the most part, they do keep their promises, and for the most part, you do meet your objectives. But something has gone seriously wrong this week.
To support the announcement of a new product, you had arranged for your team to offer a virtual "meet the architect" session for customers of existing products. At this session the product architecture team will present its vision for the next three years. To help customers plan for the near future, customers will be able to provide feedback and wish lists, and ask questions about your company's near-term plans. The goal is to build and tighten the company's relationship with its customer base. You expect over 100 customer organizations to be in attendance in real time, and about that many to attend the re-runs.
However, the Network Group just announced a network upgrade for the morning of the virtual meeting. You're concerned that making such a fundamental change so close to the virtual meeting is risky. If anything goes wrong, there might not be enough time to fix it before the virtual meeting. A major embarrassment could result.
What can you do?
The general structure of situations like these has four components: S, C, AS, and AC. First, there is an internal service component of the organization. In the scenario above, that component is the Network Group. Call this component S for service. Second, there is an internal customer component dependent on S. In the scenario above, that component is the Product Marketing group. Call this component C for customer. The third and fourth components of the situation are the respective conflicting agendas of the internal service component (S) and the internal customer component (C). Call these two agendas AS and AC.
Often in these situations, a heated exchange between the respective leads of S and C — LS and LC — develops. Upon learning of the risks to C's agenda, LC initiates an inquiry that contains questions such as these:
- Why were we in C not notified of the S agenda (AS) much earlier?
- Why was C not included in the scheduling discussions relative to AS?
- Who approved this action?
- What assurances do we have that AS will not cause disruptions?
- If disruptions do occur, what resources are available to restore the affected capabilities?
- Is LS aware that implementing AS presents significant risks, that customer satisfaction is imperiled and that significant loss of market share could result?
And so on. Worse, these questions are often asked in a "public" form or in email.
As germane The most important tip for
addressing urgent service
disruptions: don't use emailas these questions might be, approaches that involve asking such questions in advance of — or in the midst of — the AS deployment are unlikely to be constructive. The principal risk of these approaches is that the people in the S organization might feel that they are being attacked politically. If they do feel attacked, they might become defensive, and quite reasonably become uncooperative. They might even try to limit the information they provide to anyone outside the S organization. That information embargo is what prevents constructive resolution of the situation.
So what can C do? Here are some more constructive possibilities:
- Build alliances with other customers
- If other customers are affected by this incident, or if other customers have been affected by similar past incidents, forming an alliance with them can help in three ways. First, together, the members of the alliance can make a clear case to the enterprise that S's approach to service is affecting enterprise effectiveness. Second, because several C organizations are similarly affected, the issue isn't personal between LC and LS. And third, information about how AS affected the other customers can help clarify what S needs to do differently to avoid future problems.
- Seek a delay of AS
- Delaying the changes S has in mind is possibly the simplest solution to the immediate problem. In the scenario above, the timing of AS is the central issue. Rescheduling AS for a later date can resolve the conflict between AS and AC and give the enterprise time to solve the larger problem of S's approach to customer service.
- Log details pertaining to the incident and how its consequences unfold
- The details of this incident will be valuable to anyone trying to improve the process by which S determines how to effect its agenda. Details are also necessary for making a case to the enterprise that S's process needs improvement.
- Gather historical data about similar past incidents
- Historical data might not help much in resolving the current problem. But it can be invaluable in detecting patterns in S's approach to customer service. For example, if S has repeatedly given only short notice of service disruptions or changes, having hard data as to the timing of those notices can be useful in making a case for change.
- Inquire about a retrospective
- Professionally facilitated retrospectives — also known as "after-action reviews" — provide a formal, safe means of initiating organizational learning [Kerth 2001]. They are much more likely to produce constructive change than trying to conduct a "during-action review" in email, without professional facilitation. Instead of proposing a retrospective, consider presuming that one will be held, and asking "When is the retrospective on this activity?" That question alone might alter behavior, as people begin to realize that their actions in this incident might be reviewed.
- Make cognizant senior managers aware of what might be about to happen
- Senior managers who are responsible for the organizations involved in the incident might be accountable for the effects of the incident on enterprise performance. If these managers are accountable, they will likely be eager to learn about possible deleterious effects of this incident. Make a business case for immediate intervention. Use numbers. The numbers need not be in units of currency — market share, labor hours, months of delay, and similar units can be just as effective.
- Seek information about similar moves of other S's
- Gather information about similar disruptive incidents due to agenda conflicts between customer organizations and other service units. Is there an enterprise pattern? If you can find a pattern, you can further reduce the chances of your issue being interpreted as the result of a personal conflict between LS and LC. And you can make a significant contribution to improving enterprise effectiveness.
Three principles guide any customer action in response to these unanticipated risks of service disruption. First, trying to address the root cause of the problem during the incident is unlikely to succeed. Second, seeking punitive interventions so as to "teach them a lesson" is likely to exacerbate the problem. And most important, email is not your friend. Email might be useful for arranging meetings, but it's counter-effective for problem solving when people are stressed. In-person face-to-face communication is best, phone is next, and brief voicemail a distant third. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Conflict Management:
- Nasty Questions: II
- In meetings, telemeetings, and email we sometimes ask questions that aren't intended to elicit information.
Rather, they're indirect attacks intended to advance the questioner's political agenda. Here's part
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- Stalking the Elephant in the Room: I
- The expression "the elephant in the room" describes the thought that most of us are thinking,
and none of us dare discuss. Usually, we believe that in avoidance lies personal safety. But free-ranging
elephants present intolerable risks to both the organization and its people.
- Stalking the Elephant in the Room: II
- When everyone is thinking something that no one dares discuss, we say that there is "an elephant
in the room." Free-ranging elephants are expensive and dangerous to both the organization and its
people. Here's Part II of a catalog of indicators that elephants are about.
- Dealing with Deniable Intimidation
- Some people use intimidation so stealthily that only their targets recognize the behavior as abusive
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