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Expert's Angle: Managing the Relationship Between the Call Center and R&D

Most companies find that the working relationship between their customer service (or contact center) and research and development divisions is an “us” versus “them” existence. The typical roadblock for this existence is a lack of understanding of what each organization does.

The turning point for most companies to begin getting these two organizations on the same path to success is an employee satisfaction survey. The results of such a survey will clearly define the problem that “we are not all in this together.” At this point, you can begin addressing the challenges you face by categorizing them as communication, maintenance, and product development challenges.

Poor communication between the contact center and the research and development division is usually the result of direct interaction between the teams being discouraged. Development feels that interrupting engineers breaks their concentration and the contact center may believe agents are wasting time running around trying to get answers from R&D when they should be on the phone.

The maintenance challenges are usually the result of customer service staff members thinking that their input is needed to establish priorities, while development staff perceives that the contact center automatically jumps the gun when a customer reports a “potential” problem and the engineers are unable to duplicate these problems, thereby wasting valuable time.

Product development challenges tend to be the result of development staff members feeling they are best suited to make design decisions around product development because they know the underlying architecture and database configuration. Contact center and other customer service staff members, on the other hand, feel they should be more involved in new product design because they understand customers’ needs and know what is needed to meet customer expectations.

So how do you meet these challenges and arrive at a consensus?

Create a Listening-In Program

Encourage engineering visits with customer service staff to provide them an opportunity to see the customer's perspective, which will strengthen ties between the two organizations.

Designate Communication Links

To get the two organizations talking to each other as quickly as possible, develop communication links, people who act as liaisons between the organizations, or even an online forum. For smooth communication, establish procedures to follow so everyone knows how to communicate various issues and what each person’s responsibilities are to make the relationship succeed. Keep communication lines open!

Balance Resources

Schedule resources more efficiently by finding a balance between current product maintenance and new product development. Share resources! 

Establish Decision–Making Standards

Only when the two organizations can agree on the definitions of priority and severity will you be able to jointly determine the priority of issues. First, have each side – customer service and R&D -- define the terms separately, and then bring them together to discuss and agree on a compromise. Next, establish service levels by setting the goals, making the commitments, and tracking and reporting on results.

At this point you are ready to create a committee of an equal number of employees from both organizations and one non-biased employee to all work together to explore and resolve elusive or escalated problems. Then meet once a week. This gets both organizations involved in product design, development and release decisions.

Use Customer Feedback

Use customer input to guide product development. Customer Service must commit to maintaining a database of enhancement requests for Development to review when selecting and designing new features.

Encourage Recognition

Provide recognition to each team and individual, even for the smallest accomplishment. Maintain mutual respect.

Once this lifestyle change has been put in place, keep it alive by getting commitment from the top customer advocate in your company so there is a level of accountability.

How do you go from turmoil to teamwork? The answer is simple: Keep focus where it belongs: on the customer. Once we realize that “we are all in this together,” the customer experience will improve and so will the organization!

Kevin Plankey is vice president of service operations for