Answering Services Should Seek to Diversify Their Service Offerings
By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
I’ve often encouraged telephone answering services to expand their service offerings. One option is to become a multichannel provider. A wise approach that aligns with the core mission of facilitating client communications is to handle additional channels.
This can include email processing, text services, web-based chat interaction, and social media monitoring.
Some answering services have moved in this direction with varying degrees of success. Others have contemplated it but are yet to act.
Another camp is those that have resisted offering other communication channels. I get that. Pursuing what is different presents challenges and is scary.
Yet it’s important for any business—including answering services—to diversify their service offerings to better prepare for the future. Whatever your perspective of this multichannel strategy, here are some ideas to help you move forward and realize success.
Select One Channel
Don’t pursue a multichannel strategy by diving into every opportunity at once. Strategically select one option and resist the urge—no matter how tempting—to let another channel distract your attention.
Which channel are you most comfortable pursuing? Though this is a good place to start your deliberation, don’t stop at this point.
Next, evaluate the strength of your existing staff. Which channel best connects with their inherent skill set?
Third, check with your vendor to see which option they can best and most easily provide through your current system. You’ll want to integrate this new channel in with your existing answering service platform.
A last step, which could also be your first one, is to check with your existing client base and gauge their interest for each channel option.
Ideally, you should select the channel that your existing staff has the skills to address, will work on your current platform, and you can market to your established client base.
Proceed With Care
Once you’ve selected a second communication channel to pursue, plan carefully before you proceed. Don’t announce this new service and solicit customers expecting to figure it out as you go. Train your staff. Test your platform. Anticipate potential problems and adjust as needed.
Do all this before you sign your first client to this new channel.
Market the Channel
Once you’ve done all the needed preparation, now is the time to promote this new service. Start with your existing client base. Perhaps even handpick clients who will be predisposed to work with you and help you fine tune your offering.
After you’ve added the service to all your existing clients who are interested in it, begin a proactive sales and marketing campaign to solicit new business specifically for this channel. As a bonus, you can cross sell them on your voice channel.
Master This Channel
As you gain success in the second channel, resist the urge to add another one too quickly. Excel at this channel before you consider diversifying further into a third one. Don’t rush it. But don’t coast either.
Repeat When Ready
Once you’ve achieved operational and financial success on your second channel, you’re ready to replicate the process with a third one. You may desire to expand quickly and repeat your success.
But it may also be wise to take a strategic pause to settle into a new rhythm of offering two channels before you proceed to add a third. Just be sure not to remain there too long.
Keep moving forward to diversify your service offerings and become a multichannel provider. Your future will thank you.
I’d been thinking about it for quite some time. However, that little voice inside said, “Today is the day.” It seemed simple enough. I was going to move my computer monitor on my desk: a whopping eighteen inches.
Six years ago when I set up my office, I spent a lot of time finding the optimum configuration, the epitome of efficiency. Yet over time, things changed. New technology arrived, additional elements were added, and the scale of my business increased.
With each change, it was never a good time to consider the overall flow and function of my workspace. My immediate goal was always the same: find a place for it now and make it work as quickly as possible.
It’s sad but true that even as a promoter of all things productive, I allowed my workspace to deteriorate into anarchy – well, not true anarchy, but there were days when chaos was the rule rather than the exception.
One of the changes that occurred during this slide into disarray was switching from a laptop to desktop. The desktop monitor didn’t fit my desk like the laptop had. If I placed the monitor in front of the monitor stand, it was too close. If I set the monitor on the stand, it was too high.
In the immediacy of the moment, I set the monitor to the left of the stand, with the intent to figure out a better solution when things slowed down.That was three years ago.
This “temporary” position of my computer monitor caused me to sit at a contorted angle whenever I worked on my computer – which is most of the time. This was not ideal for my posture or comfort.
I estimated it would take about fifteen minutes (which I rounded up to an hour, just to be safe) to remove the monitor stand from my desk and slide the monitor to the right.
“Today is the day,” my inner voice proclaimed. After I processed the morning email, I slid under my desk to investigate removing the monitor stand. Five minutes later, it was detached and sitting on the floor in the middle of my office.
Ahead of schedule, I eased the monitor across the desk to its new home. Carefully, but intentionally it crept along with the help of my firm yet steady hand. However, after six inches, only one third of its journey, it came to an abrupt halt. The cable seemed caught.
I was wrong; the cable had no more slack. What should I do? Go to plan B (which was yet to be determined) or retreat to my original configuration? Although finding a longer monitor cable was an option, I sought instant gratification and didn’t want to waste time searching for something that might not exist or be hard to locate.
Just move the computer, I concluded. However, to do that I needed to first move the printer, but that opened up space for stationary bins, which was another “someday” project.
I could use some of the bins that held past issues of my magazines; after all, I didn’t need to keep so many copies in my office. I’d simply move the extras to storage.
That effort, unfortunately, prompted me to recount my inventory of past issues (no need to keep too many copies), throw extras away, and reorganize my archives. A half hour later, I was back in my office.
One thing led to another and then another. Three hours into the project and things were scattered everywhere, with scarcely room to move.
I finally got the computer hooked back up and working, but I couldn’t work. Things were in too much disarray.
By the time I was done, six hours had passed; I’d relocated every item on my desk (and moved a few things twice), rearranged most of my file cabinet contents, made multiple trips to the garbage, reprioritized my pending work, disconnected an unneeded gadget, cleaned up some wayward wiring, and even cancelled some phone services I wasn’t using. Whew!
That was two weeks ago. It took several hours, but the results are worth it. I’m now more efficient and effective. I’m writing this article two weeks ahead of schedule, my backlog of jobs is no longer overwhelming, and I feel in control of my work, rather than controlled by it.
Did all this happen merely because I relocated my monitor? Indirectly, yes. Moving the monitor had a ripple effect, one I’d feel – and appreciate – for a long time.
Some people – and even some businesses – never experience this ripple effect. They just go from day to day, month to month, and year to year without ever giving a thought to the incapacitating office evolving around them.
Things are squeezed in here, hooked up there, and stacked on top, until routine work becomes an illogical series of unneeded steps or wasted activity. Their work becomes harder, but change seems harder still; taking time to make things more efficient is inconceivable.
The converse is people – and even some businesses – who make changes often, seemingly for fun or out of compulsion. They spend hours restructuring their office and do so every week.
They make this investment so often that they’ll never realize a payback on it. They experience the ripple effect frequently. Some might say they’re making waves!
Another kind of ripple is far more important. We produce the ripple by the words we use and the things we do. These ripples affect others, too. Sometimes our ripples are positive; other times they aren’t.
We all known people who are chronic complainers; they’re negative and pull others into their foul moods. They’re unhappy and they try to bring others down to their level of pessimism.
They have a negative ripple effect; the ripples they generate produce an undertow. We need to take care around such folk or risk being sucked in and pulled down.
Sadly, some people produce no ripples. They have no impact on others, whether good or bad, positive or negative. I’m not sure how this happens. Surely at some point, they must have had a ripple effect, but now it’s gone.
These people aren’t much fun to be around either. There’s no movement, no influence, nothing. They inanely move from project to project and from day to day, in rote subsistence. No ripples.
Other people make positive ripples. That’s who I want to be. I want to have a positive effect on those around me. I want my ripples to motivate, encourage, inspire, and support, to be anticipated and appreciated.
We all know people – and businesses – like that, too. They’re the ones with smiling people around them, inspiring others to achieve more as they spread their ripples in all directions and for the benefit of all.
Peter Lyle DeHaan is an entrepreneur and businessman who has managed, owned, and started multiple businesses over his career. Recurring themes included customer service, sales and marketing, and leadership and management.
He shares his lifetime of business experience and personal insights through his books and posts.
It was a lazy summer afternoon, a Friday. Things were a bit slow at the office and upper management had all left to get an early jump on their weekend. I, being a front-line manager, did not have that luxury. Besides, I had work to complete before the weekend.
My first clue that something was amiss was revealed by increased activity in the hallway near my office. There was more movement than usual and at a higher volume. People were running, not walking.
Snickering and subdued shrieking was predominate, rather than reserved talk and business-appropriate laughter. It seemed that an impromptu game of tag had materialized.
Concerned my staff had instigated or was somehow involved in this revelry, I quickly went to investigate. To my relief, the perpetrators were from a different department. Even so, my stern look of disapproval was respected enough to send them scurrying in other directions.
I did not know if they merely retreated in order to find friendlier confines to resume their childishness or if a wave of common sense and decorum had suddenly overcome them. Regardless, they vacated my area and I felt sufficiently removed from any possible ramifications for their actions. I returned to my office and to the project at hand.
Several minutes later, the next clue of impropriety came via the overhead paging system. It was being used, not for “official business,” but rather for the personal enjoyment of the restless minions remaining in the building.
They paged a rookie to call an extension; I recognized this to be a non-existent number. I smiled, envisioning a frustrated greenhorn dutifully dialing a number that would not work. Certainly, the conspirators were watching from some hidden vantage point, gleefully snickering at their co-worker.
This repeated a few times and when their victim became aware of their scheme, they paged him with a legitimate extension—one of an uptight secretary, who would have no tolerance of their Tomfoolery. Now wise to their prank, the resourceful trainee, reciprocated with a retaliatory page of his own.
This soon escalated to a “paging” war, drawing in more people, with increasingly ridiculous and outrageous announcements.
A final page stopped the misfits in their tracks, leaving them first chuckling and then bemused. In a reasonable impersonation of Captain Kirk, one employee accessed the overhead paging system and with deadpan seriousness announced, “Beam me up, Scotty; there’s no intelligent life down here.”
I stopped working, smiled, and then laughed. Noticing it was now five, I got up, turned off the lights, and went home. My work could wait for another day.
I’ve had a long fascination with Star Trek, repeatedly watching episodes from the five series, the cartoons (yes, there were Star Trek cartoons), and the eleven movies. Among other things, Star Trek looks to a promising and exciting future.
Many societal problems are either resolved or greatly minimized in the future according to Star Trek, providing a mostly utopian existence where evil is restricted to outside the Federation, rarely to raise its ugly head amidst the crew of the Enterprise.
Star Trek also has a realistic underlying basis in scientific fact and sound theory, albeit stretched a bit thin at times (the transporters are perhaps the biggest scientific leap). Plus, with good plots and cleverly intertwined story lines, it makes for good drama.
However, it is not optimism for the future, realistic scientific prognostication, or compelling story lines that have given me the most pause for consideration, but rather it is the lessons Star Trek provides in leadership.
Entertainment value aside, I have also looked to Star Trek as a study in effectively and dramatically leading people and managing staff. What lessons could I learn from Captains Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer? How do they elicit such devotion and dedication among their crew?
I am not the only one thus intrigued. In the book, Make It So authors Wess Roberts and Bill Ross (ISBN 0-671-52098-9), share “leadership lessons from Star Trek The Next Generation.” They cover relevant topics such as focus, urgency, initiative, competence, communication, politics, honesty, interdependence, and resiliency.
While the book makes for good business reading, it is even more rewarding to watch each chapter’s referenced episode, focusing on the specific leadership citations.
While the book draws its conclusions from specific episodes, my preference is general observations based on the collective Star Trek saga.
Before doing so, we should note that Star Trek’s military-style command structure is not typically found in the business world and therefore total employee obedience and unquestioned employee allegiance are not realistic real-world expectations. Nevertheless, here are some leadership ideas:
Although Starfleet personnel are trained to obey their leaders, the Enterprise crews show extreme loyalty to their captains. Why? Because the captains show extreme loyalty to them. This loyalty is earned, not commanded or demanded. Each captain was willing to go to great extremes and take excessive risk for the sake of an injured, wayward, or stranded crew member. When leaders put everything on the line for a follower, the follower is much more inclined to do the same for the leader and to more fully embrace their common cause.
Take Blame; Share Credit
A true side of leadership is to shoulder the blame for an erring, but otherwise worthy subordinate, while being sure to shower accolades on those deserving it. Conversely, cowardly and ineffective leaders try to make themselves look good by assigning blame to others and taking credit for what they did not do.
Tap into Expertise
Starfleet captains (and all leaders) often put together ad hoc teams for specific missions, mixing senior officers with junior members who possess a unique skill or training. These junior staff are given a great opportunity to rise to the occasion, performing at a higher level and with increased confidence and self-esteem. Employees who prove themselves in this way are promotable and can be groomed for even greater responsibility.
Celebrate Unconventional Thinking
A repeating theme in many Star Trek episodes is a seemingly unstoppable, irreversible impending disaster. There appears to be no escape and no plausible solution. Yet one of the crew, in a moment of creative thinking, extraordinary deduction, or brilliant intuition will find a unique solution and save the day.
Star Trek captains delight in this and so do effective leaders. Plus, as unconventional solutions are rewarded and recognized, their producing behavior is reinforced and encouraged. Quite simply, great leaders inspire their charges to innovate
Be Worthy of Imitation
Each captain and every effective leader possesses qualities that are admirable and laudable of emulating. These positive traits draw both crew and staff to their leaders, compelling them to emulate the example they see.
When leaders have no one following them, then perhaps there’re not admirable enough to be followed or have some other character flaw.
Each captain is tough—when he or she needs to be. However, they also have a human side that those in their inner circle or close proximity are able to witness. This provides a connection that can transcend rough spots in relationships and times of stress.
A Final Thought
It took me way too long to realize the ultimate reason that Starfleet captains are such successful leaders. Quite simply, that’s how the writers made them.
Peter Lyle DeHaan is an entrepreneur and businessman who has managed, owned, and started multiple businesses over his career. Recurring themes included customer service, sales and marketing, and leadership and management.
He shares his lifetime of business experience and personal insights through his books and posts.
There has been a great deal of change in the DeHaan household over the past year. Last summer Laura and Chris were married, with Laura moving out of state and looking for a new teaching job. Plus, they both started graduate school last fall. This spring, Dan and Kelli graduated from college and married the next weekend. In this short time, our family of four grew to become a family of six.
Although neither Laura nor Dan have really lived with us since they departed for college, there have had been brief intervals, such as the occasional weekend or school break, when they have returned to the nest. Additionally, on holidays they and their significant others often show up for welcomed visits. Even so, our nest has been effectively empty for quite some time. Notwithstanding, people have been inquiring about their perceived change in our status. Last week, a friend asked how my wife, Candy, and I were dealing with the empty-nest syndrome. “It doesn’t seem empty,” I remarked dryly. “Even though they’re gone, their stuff is still here!” In time, I hope that each child’s belongings can be consolidated into one room until the day they are ready to accept full possession of their possessions. Yes, things are changing, albeit good and normal changes.
Another change has been Candy’s work. Although her employment has remained intact, her company’s local office has been closed. She now makes an hour-long drive twice a week to a nearby city, working from home the other three days. She has accepted this change admirably – although it has not been so easy for me, since I also work from home.
I now realize that I had unintentionally developed a comfortable and functional routine, which dovetailed around Candy’s comings and goings. Now that her schedule has changed, mine has been affected as well. As a result, I am finding it more challenging to focus on work when I need to be working. I recognize that it is much easier to work at home when I am alone at home.
There are also many significant changes happening in the United States and globally. There is the credit crisis, the recession, the woes of the automotive industry, increased unemployment, companies laying off staff or shutting down, various state governments scrambling to accommodate lost revenue and prop up budget shortfalls, and various bailout plans that are increasingly challenging to track. The amount and degree of these changes is formidable and threatens to overwhelm us. Yes, as a nation and a world, we are experiencing a time of great change.
When considering change, there are three general truisms: change is opposed, change is loss, and change is mourned. These apply at home, for our nation and our world – and at work in the call center.
Change is opposed: Change represents a deviation from the status quo, from what can be expected, regardless if it is good or bad. Change represents moving from the known to the unknown. Therefore, it is normal that people will oppose change and resist it to whatever degree they can. This might mean clinging to the old ways, lobbying against the change, or rebelling by acting out, offering resistance, or passive-aggressive behavior.
Change is loss: All change means giving up something – even if it is something bad. Many people view change as a “zero-sum-game,” which implies that there are winners and losers. When things change, they assume that someone else must have won and therefore they have lost. This assumption is natural when the change that is taking place was not their idea.
Change is mourned: When something is lost, that loss is lamented and grieved. Sometimes the loss is perceived (it didn’t happen) or potential (it might happen), whereas other times it is real and tangible (it did happen). Regardless, the emotional reaction to that loss is mourning. Just as there are steps to grieving (be it five, seven, or ten), mourning the loss wrought by change will progressively proceed down a similar path.
However, it doesn’t need to be this way. Change can be accepted if it is understood, occurs in small increments, and is within the control of those affected by it. This trio of suggestions may not offer much relief when we’re confronted with global or national upheaval that is foisted upon us, because those situations are not within our control, nor do they generally occur in small doses – though we can seek to understand them. But this advice is helpful when responding to changes in our personal lives, like children marrying and moving on, or work situations, such as layoffs, job cuts, restructuring, office closings, and wage freezes or pay cuts. In these circumstances, we can make a reasonable and successful effort to accept and even embrace change.
Change that is understood: We can best accept and deal with change if we understand it. That doesn’t mean we need to agree with the reasons for the change, merely that we comprehend why the decision for change was made. In Candy’s situation, it was clearly communicated that cuts needed be made and pointed out that the physical location of her office was not germane to her organization’s success. Though the work being done there was important, it could just as easily be done from the main location.
Change in small increments: Change made over time and in small doses has a much better chance of acceptance and becomes more manageable. For Candy, the decision to close the local office was discussed over several months, thoughtfully planned, and a phased transition timetable was established. This gave time for the change to sink in and for Candy and her coworkers to adjust mentally and emotionally as the change transpired.
Change within control of those affected by it: Whenever people can experience some degree of control over a change, they are more likely to handle it positively. Although Candy did not have any input over the office being closed, she was afforded a great deal of control over the ramifications. She was given the option to work at home, she and her boss decided how many days a week she would work in the main office, and she has a great deal of discretion over which days those are and the number of hours she works on those days. Each of these has served to make the office closing more palatable.
A final consideration is directed at those who make decisions for change. Yes, it will be opposed, viewed as loss, and mourned, but you can take steps to greatly minimize those responses by communicating the reasons necessitating the change, making the change in small increments over time, and providing as much control as possible to those who will be most affected by it.
In the end, we might not escape change, but we can alleviate some of the negative reactions to change. That is a successful change management.
Two decades ago, as a first-time manager, I was green and had much to learn. Management had looked easy when viewed from the outside. Many times had I assured myself that, given the opportunity to lead, I would never make the same seemingly dim-witted, hasty, or unwise blunders that I had witnessed or been subjected to.
Yes, I would direct my future staff and conduct myself with enlightenment and common sense, never forgetting the negative examples I had witnessed over the years. Quite simply, I pledged to do a better job as a manager. It was a commendable yet lofty goal; one that I found much easier to proclaim than to perform.
I walked down the hall with my boss, a man whom I respected, yet feared; loyally loved, yet occasionally detested. Publicly I defended him, yet privately was confounded by his seemingly inexplicable demands and thoughtless pronouncements. He was the source of countless frustrations while offering inadequate praise and encouragement. He had just given me yet one more assignment, a task that I didn’t have time to do.
I protested at his directive, insisting that I already had too much on my plate. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “Just delegate it.” I mentally reviewed the capabilities and level of expertise of my charges. Although a group of capable young technologists, none of them, I concluded, were ready for a project of this magnitude or capable of completing it in way that would meet my boss’s high standards and exacting expectations.
“But there is no one I can delegate it to,” I objected plaintively.
“Do you want to know the secret of delegation?” he inquired. There was a twinkle in his eye. I moved closer and held my breath, expecting the secret of managerial nirvana. My expecting eyes were all the encouragement he needed to continue. “It’s simple,” he instructed, “Just look for your busiest guy and give the project to him!” I was dumbfounded at the seemingly ridiculousness and unsound nature of his great “insight.” Wisely, I said nothing and he continued. “You see, the busiest guy is the guy who gets things done; that is always who you want to delegate to.”
Inside I was seething, but outwardly I kept quiet, giving a comprehending look, a respectful nod, and a faint smile. His deputation of me and dissemination of knowledge now complete, he strode down the hallway to his next victim, while I gratefully ducked into my office and closed the door.
His air of acumen angered me on multiple levels. First, I had yet another project to attend to. Second, it was illogical and unfair; delegating to the busiest employee would only serve to make them more busy, setting them up to be the leading candidate for the next project. Lastly, and on a grander level, I realized that as the busiest of those under his command, I was, and would forever be, his “go to guy.”
There had to be a better way. It took a while, some investigative reading, and a lot of trial and error, but I eventually came to understand the art of delegating. Delegation is something all managers need to do. Unfortunately it is easier said than done. Many who attempt it are unhappy with the results, often accepting sub-par outcomes or completely giving up. Sadly, successful delegation requires an initial investment of time, often more time than for you to do the work yourself. If that is the case, why bother? Quite simply because once you have taught your employees on how to receive and complete delegated tasks, you can realize a huge savings of time as you empower them, allowing them to grow as individuals and to contribute to your organization’s success. As such, delegation is well worth the extra effort to do it right. A five step procedure paves the way to successful delegation.
The first step is to select the right people. A person who has proven themselves in small things can be given greater responsibilities with increased latitude. However, until they have proven their ability to responsibly and effectively handle assignments, the scope of their tasks must be kept small and somewhat trivial. For example, if they can’t arrive at work on time, is there any reason to assume they can accomplish something more challenging? To give unproven employees a chance to substantiate themselves, start with small assignments (yes, the first one might be to arrive on time) such as sorting mail, stuffing envelopes, or making copies. Next, they can graduate to placing an office supply order (you select the items and quantities, they call it in), or processing UPS shipments. Each time they successfully complete a delegated assignment, they can be rewarded with additional responsibilities; each time they fail to properly or timely complete a task, they must be confronted. All employees should be trained to handle delegated projects at a basic level. If they are unable to handle even the most basic task, you should seriously ask yourself why you are still employing them. Some employees will advance to assignments of medium difficulty, while a few will be superstars, able to work independently and largely unsupervised. Therefore, match the task to the employee based on their record.
Once the correct employee has been selected, ensure they have the proper tools and knowledge to do the job. If the work requires a computer, is one available for them? If it requires a program, do they know how to use it? Next, consider whether they have the background knowledge to complete the project. It is easy to assume that key details are common knowledge or to oversimplify a project. Often, an employee needs instruction or training before they can successfully navigate an assignment. Not only do you need to ensure they have been given this information, but also to provide it in the ideal format for them. Some people learn best in written form, others want to be shown, and some need to do it; occasionally a combination is appropriate. Regardless, asking an employee to embark on a project without the proper resources is setting them up for failure.
Thirdly, give them a clear timetable for completion. Saying that a project is “urgent” means different things to different people. Saying “when you have time” can likewise be misinterpreted. When giving a deadline, you cannot be too specific. Examples include, “I require your written overview on my desk every Monday by 5 p.m.”, or “I need your preliminary work by the end of the day on Thursday, the 12th.”
Next — and this is the hard part – hold them accountable. Follow-up needs to be consistent and expected; let them know ahead of time that you will be checking on their progress. Also assure them that you are available for questions. If they do unsatisfactory work or miss a deadline, there must be a reaction. This could be merely asking them to explain what happened. Perhaps, despite your best efforts, instructions were incomplete or training was insufficient; then shoulder the blame yourself and correct the oversight. Sometimes, they need to be made aware of the ramifications: “Because you did not complete this on time, we lost the client, which will cost us X hundred dollars.” If you correctly follow step one (select the right people and allow them to prove themselves) only in the rarest of cases will disciplinary action be required or even appropriate. The story is told of a loyal, responsible, and trusted employee who made an error costing his company $330,000 dollars. He submitted his resignation. “What!” his manager exclaimed, “You can’t quit now; we just invested a third of a million dollars in your training!” What confidence and assuredness this must have instilled in that employee.
Lastly, as they prove themselves in small things, begin giving them bigger and more important assignments. Now you can then begin to phase out much of your effort in the “accountability” step. Yes, they still need to be held accountable, but it gradually becomes ancillary to the process of delegation, instead of integral to it.
If you follow these steps consistently, all employees will become better at responding to delegation; some employees will even advance to the point of self-determination, where you no longer need to assign things to them, they take the initiative to do what needs to be done without your input or direction. This is delegation at its finest!
Last month, in part one of this article, we discussed Benchmarking. The premise was that there is value in being able to statistically compare your call center with other centers. Taking that concept to the next level, there is the more intense and equally more valuable Business Improvement Group.
Business improvement groups, sometimes called profit clubs, also have as their basis a quantitative element. Typically, the primary focus of these numbers is financial in nature. Operational metrics, sales numbers, and human resource outcomes can also be considered, but are generally secondary in nature.
While benchmarking benefits from a large number of participants, business improvement groups can only function successfully in small groups. Generally, four to six members are ideal, although seven to ten can be workable in the right situations. The group will meet on a regular basis to review their financial reports, exploring ratios for different cost areas, profits or losses, and may even consider upper management compensation. This delicate level of private disclosure does not happen easily. The participants must be carefully screened and selected to ensure compatibility and concurring business objectives. They will need to patiently strive to establish a rapport and build a consensus. Finally, they must be committed to the process and maintain strict confidentiality in all respects.
The Life Cycle of Business Improvement Groups
Also, be aware that business improvement groups have a life cycle. There is the start-up phase, establishing a rapport, mutual disclosure, decreased interest, and dissolution or coasting:
Start-up Phase: The start-up phase is critical for a successful group. It includes finding members, agreeing on the need for the group, and establishing basic rules and policies. Once the group is formed, additional members should not be added; this will only break the free flow of information and disrupt the dynamics of the group.
Establishing Rapport: The next step is establishing a rapport. Although some of this will have been done in the start-up phase and may have existed prior to that, it will need to be taken to a higher level. Social activities are ideal for this as it allows members to learn about each other in a safe and non-threatening environment. Even better is one of the many weekend team-building opportunities that exist. This often takes the form of presenting an intense challenge to the group, which can only be successfully resolved through teamwork and mutual trust; close personal bonds are the result. Certainly, the requisite rapport can be developed without either of these optional exercises, but it is done so at the expense of time. During the rapport step, the rules and policies are fine-tuned and must be brought to unanimous consensus.
Disclosure: The middle stage, mutual disclosure, may follow immediately after a group rapport is established or can build slowly over time. This stage is the key objective of the group, where all of the useful business data is shared, explored, and discussed. This phase can last for a year or as long as four to five years. It is unusual for it to last much longer. During this phase, some members may lose interest or develop diverging business goals and drop out of the group. It may be tempting to add new members in order to maintain a workable group size. This impulse should be resisted as the ongoing viability of the group could be compromised.
Decreased Interest: Following the disclosure stage is decreased interest. Here the members’ commitment and attention to the group decline. This could be a result of increased interpersonal tension, a loss of group cohesiveness, decreasing results, or a host of other outside influences. Some members will respond by dropping out of the group, but most will continue, if only for appearance sake.
Dissolution/Coasting: The final stage is dissolution or coasting. Dissolution is when the group concurs that no substantial progress is being made or will likely be made in the future; all work is stopped and no more meetings are scheduled. Coasting results when members continue to go through the motions, though with less vigor and frequency and/or allow meetings to deteriorate into a social assemblage. The benefit of coasting is that the group is still loosely held together and can quickly be resurrected if the situation warrants and the group wills it to happen.
The Process: Like benchmarking, business improvement groups can benefit from a facilitator to guide the process, smooth out the rough spots, and head off trouble. Generally, this guide will be involved in phase one, active in phase two, kick-off phase three, and fade into the background, being available as needed, for the remaining portions of the group’s life cycle. This person needs to be an objective and dispassionate observer with no stake in the results of the group’s work or with any conflict of interest. A knowledge and understanding of the call center industry is useful, but not required.
As mentioned, the basis for a business improvement group is financial. This, however, is not all that is covered. Using financial analysis as a foundation, considering other numerical measurements often follows, similar to those identified with benchmarking. In fact, any benchmarking metric can be used in business improvement groups, though it is common for the group to delve deeper into the numbers, share more thoroughly, and probe more intensely than is possible or appropriate in benchmarking.
As business improvement groups progress, the agenda can (but doesn’t have to) evolve beyond numerical considerations. It becomes more holistic and covering subjective issues such as hiring and firing, business strategy, marketing plans, acquisitions and mergers, and exit strategies. Close and cohesive groups can on occasionally progress still farther, pursuing cooperative buying, group marketing, joint ventures, collective investment or acquisition, and even consolidation of their businesses. This is rare; only the best of groups can handle this extreme and then only at some risk. However, if successful, the rewards can be great. It is important to state that these results should never be the original stated purpose of forming a business improvement group, but know that they can be an eventual outcome.
A Caution: There are possible concerns with business improvement groups, especially if it involves direct competitors. These concerns include the perceptions, whether real or imaged, of price-fixing and collusion. Therefore great care should be taken to avoid these areas of impropriety and illegality. It is recommended to consult with an attorney to learn what specific activities and discussions should be avoided, as well as how to protect oneself.
Conclusion: Benchmarking and business improvement groups are both valuable mechanisms to bring in outside experience, knowledge, and results into a business. With this input, business goals become more defined and realistic; direction, clearer; and focus, sharper. Benchmarking is easier to get started and quicker to produce tangible results, though the benefits and value are not as significant. Business improvement groups can produce a wealth of valuable information, likely unavailable from any other source or at any cost. However, they take more effort to get started and require more time. Using the above information can serve as a guide for getting either effort started, though benefits do abound when independent outside assistance is available and used.