The Collaborative Challenge: How to Strengthen Your Employee Networks

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Here's why businesses are making employee collaboration a priority.
Employee Engagement

It is no secret that customer engagement is critical for businesses. But before companies can provide their customers with an excellent experience, their employees need to engage with each other. And even though businesses are trying to tear down the silos between sales, marketing, and service departments, communication barriers continue to prevent the inter-organizational engagement necessary for organizations to thrive.

As business leaders strive to provide customers with a consistent experience across channels, many are taking a closer look at the organizational and communicative infrastructure within their organizations and finding room for improvement.

"When we talk about where customers are getting frustrated with companies there are a few things that point to the increased need for collaboration," says Robert Wollan, global managing director of Accenture strategy, sales, and customer services. "In a recent study that we did, 84 percent of customers said they were frustrated by a company promising one thing and delivering another, which signals a breakdown in the hand-off process, whether that's the hand-off from marketing into sales or marketing into service."

Another sign that points to a lack of employee collaboration, Wollan

adds, is that 58 percent of the respondents expressed being frustrated with experiences that differed across channels. "The fact that you aren't getting the same experience when engaging with a company online, face-to-face, or over the phone, suggests that the company's information and employees are locked in silos," he says.

Data and communication silos often exist within organizations since each department is focused on meeting its respective goals, which are not necessarily aligned, observes Forrester Research analyst Sharyn Leaver.

As an example, Leaver points to the classic lack of communication between many marketing and IT executives. The issues that often prevent CMOs and CIOs from collaborating "comes down to not being aligned on strategies and priorities," Leaver says. "But one of the exciting things is the age of the customer, where companies are putting the customer in the center of a company's strategies, and finding new ways to realign their priorities and actually collaborate on customer outcomes."

One such company is flash-memory chip maker SanDisk, a 2014 Gartner & 1to1 Media CRM Excellence winner, which implemented new strategies to strengthen collaborations among its network of more than 5,000 employees and improve the customer experience. In 2012, the Milpitas, CA-based company knew it needed to improve its work processes after receiving complaints from customers, explains Customer Experience Director Reginald Chatman.

Results from a survey that SanDisk created with the help of voice of the customer and market research provider Confirmit showed that original equipment manufacturer (OEM) clients, for example, were dissatisfied with the service they received. OEM clients struggled to test SanDisk products in the qualification stage before they moved the products into the manufacturing stage.

"When we collected feedback from our customers, it pointed exactly to the reasons why they were unhappy and it cut across divisions," Chatman says. "The samples clients needed were not arriving in a timely manner and then we weren't responding fast enough from the customer service side, and other areas were also failing."

With its Confirmit's help, Chatman explains, SanDisk designed an "end-to-end strategy that connects employees across our many business lines."

The first step was to create a team of directors from the company's various departments, including marketing, product management, sales, engineering, and IT. The team was responsible for collecting customer experience data and sharing insights with the rest of the company.

SanDisk also introduced the Customer Experience Community, an internal social network where employees can discuss and brainstorm ideas related to the customer experience. To drive participation, the customer experience team created a rewards program. Employees give points to other employees for jobs that are performed well and employees can redeem the points for prizes.

With its new customer experience strategy in place, SanDisk realigned work processes across its various departments to better handle OEM client requests, among other areas. As a result of SanDisk's VoC program, the organization saw an increase in product qualification scores and in the area of order management by as much as 20 percent year-over-year.

For other organizations that want to improve their customer experience, Chatman says it is important to create a core team to help employees "take ownership of the contributions that they'll be making to improve the customer experience and to make sure that the information for driving these initiatives is accurate."

In addition, companies need an easy way to engage and share information with employees. "We just happen to be using an enterprise social network," Chatman adds, "But there are many ways to keep your employees up to date on what the organization is working on and what is going on with the customer."

A tool that connects employees across an organization and promotes collaboration is essential, agrees Frank Gullo, director of digital and mobile Strategy at Superior Group, an outsourcing and workforce solutions provider with approximately 400 employees.

A number of obstacles, such as an aging intranet and system for managing data and network file usage prevented Superior Group's employees from communicating with each other and aligning their efforts to provide a strong customer experience.

These challenges led the company to "replace the intranet and look at social enterprise tools," Gullo explains. "We also wanted this tool to provide more than communication; we wanted to engage our employees."

The Williamsville, NY-based firm chose IBM Connections, a social network for the enterprise, and launched it last year. The company chose the platform for its features, which included the ability to create online communities, wikis, logs, and activity streams, according to Gullo.

The platform's mobile capabilities were also important, since many of the organization's employees travel or work remotely. Superior Group combined Connections with IBM's video chat and instant messaging tool, Sametime, making it easier for remote employees to stay connected with the organization.

In addition, the company also used the platform to encourage employees to contribute and vote on ideas. "For example, we wanted to gather ideas from everyone on paper reduction," Gullo says. "We used the ideation blog feature, which lets staff contribute and vote on ideas, which is great because it democratizes the idea flow and we got even more people to participate by offering a reward for the winning idea."

Superior Group also streamlined its new hire onboarding process with the platform. Instead of asking new employees to complete a mix of training sessions, documents, and introductory meetings, the platform provides a check-list for the employee to follow and a manager can review it to make sure the employee's onboarding experience stays on track.

These processes in turn improve the customer experience by enabling employees to be "better organized, share ideas and information across departments, and work more closely together," Gullo says. "I don't have many ROI stats to share yet, but within our first 18 months, we've already noticed a 20 percent reduction in email and file network usage, which is already a sign that we're becoming more efficient."

Looking ahead, the company wants to include more gamification features and analytics to measure the platform's followership, views, and commentary, Gullo adds. The organization also plans to use the limited permissions feature within the latest version of Connections, which would give customers and contracted workers access to certain areas of the platform, enabling them to better collaborate with employees.

And even though companies can benefit from new tools and strategies, be prepared for resistance from some employees, Gullo warns. When introducing a new strategy or tool, "the key is relevant content and having a plan for integrating it into the company's goals and culture," he says. "We faced our challenges, such as data silos and generational resistance, but one of the lessons we've learned is you don't have to convert everyoneas long as those who resist using the strategy or tool don't sabotage everyone else's efforts, that's fine."

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