I was recently asked to lead a discussion with a finance team on the subject of ‘How to deliver excellent internal customer service ‘which, on the face of it was a great opportunity to extol the virtues of finance and how it can support its internal customers .
That got me thinking (again)
A) Definition-The notion that Finance functions have a customer-supplier relationship doesn’t fully convey the interaction between finance and the rest of the business. This leads to clarification of what internal customer service is not. It is not about having a service level contract and an outcome if the service is substandard where the customer can go elsewhere in the market place. The operational ‘customer’ is stuck with this ‘supplier’ and the contract is not one predicated on ‘market value’ for goods and services but more about ‘communal sharing’, ‘equality matching’ or ‘authority ranking’ (i) As the ‘customer’ cannot vote with their feet, there needs to perhaps be a reframing of the idea of contractual agreements into a more collaborative style of working -the default position if the internal service is lacking is for operational personnel to distrust the Finance output which leads to sub optimal decision making, so part of the definition of ‘Excellence’ is trust . ( more of this later) We now see more roles in finance advertised as ‘Business Partners’ (ii) and this idea has also been extended to other ‘traditional ‘support functions such as HR or IT, we thus move away from ‘silo’ mentality into a much more sinew like function uniting various parts of the organisational structure and Finance being seen as a ‘trusted partner’
What this means is that the organisational structure will benefit from an effective use of finance capabilities to ultimately produce better external customer service and providing support and information that is timely, accurate and relevant and that can clearly identify the benefits in volume growth, customer retention rates and achieved outcomes. So clearly there is a differentiation between internal and external customer service (certainly at organisational level). There is a difference between value for money and value for effort
B) Differentiation-If we remove the likelihood of dispensing with the service from the customer’s point of view, then how can we get the best out of the finance team to deliver excellence? I think the answer is having some form of contract (either explicit or implicit) which states the rules of engagement between functions. This can take many forms such as written procedures for expense claims, timesheet submission or purchase ordering to the more interpersonal contracts about consideration, openness and communication between parties. Such engagements need to be equal and fair and based on mutual respect and a common set of values. When an organisation has tacit criteria for quality of output, it is necessary that this is understood by all and not just one side of the deal. We should be talking about a marriage of equals, no matter what differences there are in pay or status. Person A needs Person B to cooperate along accepted rules of process and behaviour and both parties come away with a feeling that they have got value for effort.
C)-Governance- If an organisation is committed to values such as ‘Excellence’ (ii) or ‘Efficiency’,’ elimination of waste’ or ‘continuous improvement’ (iii) it starts with some Principles and Policies as well as some detail to back these ups. Typically this will start at recruitment level with a clear definition of the role and job description. HR Policies around training and personal career development are very important in setting the standard required for the role. In terms of finance obviously Numeracy and IT skills are important, but also non-technical skills like analytical abilities and critical thinking also come into the mix. So Excellence is a standard which means having the right people in the right role with the right competencies. It is also empowering people at the appropriate level to ensure that lines of discipline, communication and decision making conform with organisational checks and balances and that internal controls, hierarchical structures and direction of travel are clear. You cannot expect or demand Excellence in a vacuum when there are no standards or benchmarks Governance also includes leadership which requires direction, resource allocation and facilitation. People cannot do their jobs without knowing expected outputs, having the right resources to work effectively and a smooth path without obstacles. Leadership therefore is very important for setting the scene, equally self leadership is following directions is also part of this mix. (iv) What is equally important is an understanding of the role of finance and its interaction with other departments and a sympathetic approach to how operational people work and the pressures they themselves are under to deliver excellence. If you don’t have the right tools and working environment you cannot be expected to perform at your best.
D) Known Knowns and Emotional Intelligence
Whether finance staff have been newly recruited or have been in their roles for some time there will inevitably be a personalised approach to how work is undertaken because we all have different personality traits. People will have technical knowledge about procurement or payroll they will also have an idea how to elicit information and re analyse it to provide meaningful and excellent service to users. Being approachable, having an open mind, engaging positively with operational personnel are pre requisites for an excellent service , even amateur psychology comes into this because you may know what pressures they are under to deliver against timeframes or performance indicators, but you do not know any other pressures they may be under . This is a known unknown and empathic approaches will be required to ensure information you receive is in a correct format for you to do your job.
E) Finally , Excellence comes from within and you set your own standards with a weather eye of outputs and corporate culture, It starts with knowing who is interested in your output, what they require in return for your engagement and what is the best approach and communication style that will ensure your message gets across. In short your behaviour style and manner underpin excellence which is not just about quality of content but also about quality of delivery.
i For an in depth review of these ideas see ‘Structures of Social Life’ Fiske
ii Business Partner see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n361TseHn1w
iii The use of the term Excellence is explored in detail in Tom Peter’s Book ‘In Search of excellence’ and has been adopted by many businesses as a 7 s model
4. style of management
5. skills – corporate strengths
7. shared values
iv -Standard phrases like these are commonplace in business , Kaizen ( continuous improvement) has been a value explicitly used in Toyota for many years –it can transfer itself into practices such a project management, lean, agile working processes and six sigma methodologies
v -Typical exponent of leadership attributes would include Jim Collins and his 5 levels of Leadership See his Book – ‘From Good to Great’