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  • Paul Hobin

Client Relationship Management for Internal Customers

Updated: Feb 28

Would you like a shorter introduction to this topic? (This essay is 7,000 words!) There's a quick 1,200 word intro to my thinking about CRM right here on my web site.

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The premise of this article: Little attention is paid to the need for, and the power of, Client Relationship Management for admin staff providing internal corporate services such as procurement and IT. Because the “customers” are largely obligated to “buy” the service only from the internal provider, relationship management is something few admins think about….except when a relationship blows up in their face.

CRM strategies, purposefully applied, can greatly improve the service, productivity and profile of internal service providers, make their relationships more positive and make their jobs easier and more enjoyable to perform.


Why Does This Matter to Me?

Admin staff: I’m one of you, and it is to you that I speak. I’m going to present a case that you might be interested in – that client relationship management matters in our world and that you might get a whole lot of personal and career gratification out of understanding CRM better, and using it.

The bulk of admin staff operating internal processes – the “gears” that make the corporate organism function – look upon their work as a set of mandated tasks that have to be done. The processes are seen as being “imposed” – by policy, or management, or simply convention. They’re imposed on me as an admin to implement, and I therefore impose them on you, my internal clients, because, hey, “that’s the process.” If you don’t like it, tough. That’s the process.

In turn, everyone who is a service provider in this mode becomes a service client to someone else’s process, gets frustrated at some point, rebels against some aspect of the other person’s process, and gets told “tough, that’s the process”. Everyone’s a “victim” of process, and no one’s happy. Sound at all familiar?

“But I’m just an admin and there’s nothing I can do!” Yes and no. I’m not going to tell you you can move mountains and change your corporate culture. But I guarantee – guarantee – that you can achieve a lot more, influence more, change your personal work circumstances, and adjust your clients’ attitudes more than you thought possible.

CRM is for you if:

  • you have difficult relationships with internal clients because the processes used to deliver services don’t work well, and it’s frustrating, tiring, and stressful to do your job because the clients are unhappy more than they’re satisfied;

  • delivery of your service involves applying rules with people who’d rather do something else, and you’re the person constantly saying no;

  • you’re in an administrative or clerical position where you provide services to internal clients, but you want to contribute more, be noticed and get promoted.

Which CRM Are We Talking About?

Perusing the web to learn about the CRM conversation already out there, I was surprised to find very little about the kind of Customer/Client Relationship Management I’m talking about.

CRM usually refers to the strategies used by large companies to interface with their customers and most of the online discussion is about this scenario. One of the base assumptions is that these relationships are faceless and anonymous because the bulk of goods and services are provided by large companies with national or international scope and millions of customers. CRM workers interact with dozens of customers every day, and every day it’s a different set of customers. I’ll refer to this as “call centre CRM”.

This discussion is not about call centre CRM. This is about internal client relationships between departments where service providers and clients know each other, at least by name, and the success of the service is going to depend on, or at least be impacted by, that personal relationship.

Why Do It THIS Way? Why Not Use Call Centre CRM?

I have seen internal service providers attempt to use the call centre CRM approach, providing service on the basis of anonymity. The logic revolves around concepts like all clients receiving the same answers, solutions and level of service, and the desirability of making the people providing the service interchangeable so individual service providers are not tied to any particular set of clients. Those are valid ideas, but in my experience this not only does not work, it can be disastrous.

I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to make call centre CRM work internally, but I would ask why anyone would try. I’ve worked for some great organizations, but never for an organization that didn’t spend a lot of time, energy and money on employee relations, communications and culture. More often than not, corporate culture is a thorny problem that large organizations spend years or decades and millions trying to wrap their heads around. If we’re concerned about our culture, if we want to be “open-door” and “mutually supportive” and “team-building” and we’re spending money trying to get there, then why, WHY would we implement the call centre CRM model based on faceless anonymity? In any organization that wants to have a positive internal culture it’s a terrible idea.

Call centre CRM implemented internally destroys the cohesion, the sense of shared identity and purpose, that corporate culture programs are trying to build up. Proper client relationship management promotes cohesion and strengthens the organization by creating bonds of support.

How and Why Can CRM Help Me?

  • CRM can make you unique.

The majority of staff working with internal clients don’t clearly understand what internal CRM is, how important it is, and how to deliver it. Usually when staff think about client relationship management they assume it’s a management responsibility. (It’s got “management” right in the name!) There might be a line or two about relationships in your job description, but there are probably 20, 30, or 50 lines about the processes and tasks you must attend to. CRM is an afterthought and your performance is measured on how many issues you deal with and how fast you complete them. CRM is harder to measure, so it’s rarely measured, and at the end of the day it doesn’t seem like it’s on anyone’s radar.

Even managers are often vague on how important it is for staff – ALL staff – to be delivering great CRM, or even how it’s possible for them to do it. It’s not that management doesn’t care, but more about staff and sometimes managers not knowing how to go about making it a reality. I hope I can give you some ideas about how to do just that.

If you as an administrative or clerical staffer CAN deliver great CRM you’re going to stand out simply because you may be the only one doing so in a department of 5, 10 or even 50 people performing the same role. And if you work in an organization that recognizes and rewards the ability to deliver stand-out service, you’re going to go places in that organization.

Neither I, nor you, are saying that our colleagues are worthless stooges if they’re not doing this. I’ve had the privilege of a life surrounded by talented, dedicated people. Different people bring and deliver value in different ways, including in ways I aspire to emulate but may never achieve. I am thankful that they are strong where I am weak. This is where I am strong and add value. Maybe it can be your road too.

  • CRM can make your job better – for you.

Even if you have no designs on higher rungs up the corporate ladder, CRM can make potentially difficult jobs much more enjoyable. As I mentioned at the top, if you have stressful relationships with internal clients CRM can turn many of those antagonistic relationships into something much more productive and enjoyable – for both you and them.

CRM does not work miracles; it’s not going to directly solve any of the process, IT, staffing, money, or other problems that are causing sour relations between departments. The beauty of CRM is that it doesn’t have to fix any of those things that are usually outside your control – you can improve the relationships themselves, without improving the underlying issues at all. That said…

  • CRM opens doors of opportunity to an array of contributions…and recognition.

Once you’ve improved the relationships you will find doors opening that allow you to improve other things. When the client who provides the other half of a business process relationship with your role becomes your ally in dealing with a poorly designed process, their cooperation may provide the key to understanding where faults lie, determining corrections, and making material improvements that can apply across the enterprise. That’s not your job, but that’s entirely the point. Initiative, problem-solving and solutions are all the more impressive when they come from the most unexpected quarter – you and me, on our non-management staff rungs.

Can I Do This? Am I Smart Enough, Or Good Enough?

You’re damn right you can do this. It’s not about brains. This is about three things only: caring about and valuing the work you do; caring about and valuing the people (clients) you’re doing it for; and caring about and valuing yourself, because there’s nothing wrong at the end of the day with doing this because you want to enjoy work more, be noticed, get praise, feel good about yourself, bring home more money, and be able to provide better for your family. Or just for yourself, if it’s just you at home. Anyone can do this if it’s right for them psychologically, because it’s more about caring than anything else.

That’s a point worth looking at more closely: if this is right for you. While I think my eight aspects of CRM are solid truths, that doesn’t mean this approach is right for everyone. This is, after all, about relationships. Think of all the personal relationships you have with people. Are they all the same? Of course not; no two are identical. CRM is going to be different with every practitioner and every relationship, and there are multiple ways of delivering great CRM. Maybe my ideas will resonate with you; maybe they won’t. If they don’t, don’t fight it. Find another way of thinking about CRM that’s right for you.

What Kinds of “Internal Client” Situations Are We Talking About?

Procurement and IT services are good examples of departments where staff are serving internal clients and CRM skills can improve relations with those internal clients.

You may have a level in the client interface structure populated by people with the title Client Relationship Manager. So you don’t need CRM because that’s not your role, right? Think again. In fact, the larger the organization the more EVERY employee needs to be using their own CRM skills every day. It’s simply a matter of complexity. The bigger the organization, the more complex it is, the more difficult is the regular day-to-day stuff that keeps the company going, and the more everyone needs CRM to grease those process gears.

But Why Is CRM Needed? Doesn’t “Process” Just Handle Everything?

I’ve never had a CRM title, but CRM has done more for my effectiveness than any other single factor at work. There are many reasons for this.

  • Different departments, different paths.

Despite different departments theoretically all having the same goal of corporate profit and success, they may be committed to very different paths to achieve that goal. Marketing communications wants to spend considerable sums on the highest quality media products. Procurement wants to shave costs. Those two roads to profit may be diametrically opposed. CRM to the rescue.

  • IT is a complicator, not a simplifier.

I’m a geek and an IT enthusiast and promoter, but don’t believe anyone who says corporate IT systems are there to make your life easier. They may in some cases, and they certainly work, but they rarely make things easier and they can be the source of almost ceaseless friction leading to confrontations between you, IT, the department at the other end of a process that’s just broken down, and the client you’re trying to serve. Relationships are hard enough between two parties; now you’ve got four. It gets messy. CRM to the rescue.

  • Centralization

Centralization of any service, in any organization, creates a multitude of technical challenges, overlain on a base of client resistance as local people and local services give way to distant, “faceless,” and usually more automated and process-driven services. CRM is how you promote and prove the value of this change to a skeptical audience and provide the “face” that proves that centralization and service-from-a-distance does not have to mean disconnected and disinterested.

In all of the scenarios above people are upset (if skillful CRM has not already been employed). Someone may be on your phone expressing their frustration in a very agitated manner. There may be the veiled implication that trying to apply the policies of your department will be career limiting. (And of course giving in and failing to do so can be even more career limiting.) It’s a pretty awful life, isn’t it?

I don’t think so. CRM is what I credit for conquering these situations, reducing antagonisms, mitigating problems, encouraging respect and generally taking potentially unpleasant scenarios, and even whole jobs, and making them a pleasure to do. The great thing about applying CRM in internal, intra-departmental relations as opposed to with the general public is that public-facing call centre CRM can be confronted with angry clients dozens of times a day, achieve 100% success, and be confronted with an entirely new batch of angry clients tomorrow. Internal CRM, dealing with a limited group of clients on a continuous basis, gets to build on its success, improving relationships week by week and month by month, and seeing its efforts produce business results and even personal friendships.

Brass Tacks: What Is It?

In my experience internal CRM is composed of eight elements. Some of these may at first glance seem obvious but there is in each of these cases an aspect or method of execution which I believe is not obvious.

These aren’t “rules”. CRM isn’t something you accomplish by mechanically applying a set of procedures prescribed by a flowchart. It’s listening and helping. What makes professional CRM different than friendship is that when it’s time to help you come equipped with a set of pro tools proven to get results, and from experience you know which ones to pick for each situation.

These are eight pro tools that work for me. Because CRM isn’t mechanical we’ll never finish discovering how to do it better. I’d love to hear about what you’ve made work, because I’m not done getting better at this.

1. Competence and Knowledge

Well…..duh? This is an example of an “obvious” point. Of course your clients expect you to be knowledgeable and competent. But just knowing your job is not what we’re talking about. CRM-level competence requires you to go far beyond your job description.

Here’s your job in relation to four other departments that you interface with:

And here’s the scope of the knowledge you need for great CRM:

Extending your knowledge into the workings of other departments is most importantly about understanding how your role and your department interface to another department. These interfaces don’t happen by default. They require effort to create and maintain and you’re in an excellent position to assist with that.

Why does this knowledge matter? Why assist with something that’s not really your responsibility? When an IT system in the interface breaks you will open a ticket or perform other formal fault reporting and IT is going to deal with it, right? Maybe. Does IT know the data, the process, the business rules that you’re trying to apply across the interface? Probably not. I’m not knocking IT – I was IT. I worked for an organization with several thousand custom programs written in-house. That’s an extreme example, but most organizations are sufficiently complicated that IT can only know the details of the major enterprise packages. When anything else breaks, IT first has to come up to speed on how the system works. If your knowledge expands across the interface to understand why you’re exchanging data with the other department, how they use it, what their requirements are for it and what constitutes bad data, you’re in an excellent position to respond to a systems fault, bypassing breakdowns to continue service while the issue is being dealt with, and simultaneously providing information to IT that expedites repair.

Understanding the interface is not just about troubleshooting IT issues – that’s just a good example that illustrates how interface knowledge helps everyone – IT, the client, and you. How often does your department change policies, rules, processes, forms, data configurations, staff, job titles, phone numbers (and on and on and on)? I chose gears for the illustration above for the precision of the analogy. Every time your department changes anything it changes the number of teeth in a gear that interfaces with another department. If the other department isn’t immediately aware and also changes their gear to continue meshing seamlessly with your new configuration – breakdown. It happens a lot. If your knowledge expands across those boundaries to understand the interface itself, from both sides, you’re instantly able to identify and solve problems and recommend solutions. Before long you’ll be providing management with a “heads up” when a change proposal is probably going to break something, before it’s even happened. That’s star-level performance.

Isn’t it terribly difficult to acquire this type of information? Won’t people in other departments object to you butting into their business? Probably not, particularly if you do it right. Those people on the “other side” want to get their work done with as few disruptions as possible, just like you. And when do people not appreciate someone who is interested in THEM? If that’s how you approach other departments – I’m interested in what you do; I’m interested in understanding our interface so I can provide more accurate information – they’re going to appreciate what you’re doing and they’ll usually try to help you expand the scope of your knowledge. You’re helping yourself, but you’re also helping them.

2. Confidence and Authority

Staff often shy away from being viewed as the authority in a difficult scenario on the mistaken believe that being the authority means being responsible for whatever isn’t working. Not true. Authority does not equate to responsibility (for everything). It equates to acting reliably.

When you’re the person delivering the service, that makes you the authority. It doesn’t require a management title. You deliver the service, clients have your name and phone number, they’re going to call you and expect you to speak and act on behalf of the service. Authority!

This is nothing to be afraid of because being the authority is not about being responsible for everything, it’s not about having all the answers. It’s only about accepting responsibility to do your best, do a good job, and communicate – listen to your clients, and then keep them in the loop. Does that sound too easy to be true? It is true.

This simple paradigm ironically works best in the worst situations, because most people will be fleeing from being “the authority” in those situations, when your clients’ primary concern is that someone takes responsibility……for caring. Sure, they want results too, but when clients are being ignored by whole departments and their work, emails and phone calls are going into a black hole of unresponsiveness, someone who simply cares is 75% of what they want. If you just care and reach out, you get to wield confidence and authority almost effortlessly.

Exaggeration? No, I’m speaking from experience of major systems implementations that result in tasks with a normal 3-day turn taking six to eight weeks to get done, with zero responsiveness from the responsible department. It happens!

Specifically, what am I proposing that you should do and say in these difficult situations?

  • Be truthful, completely, always. One of the eight elements of great CRM is Reliability, and you cannot be reliable and tell lies at the same time. There may be limits to “complete truth always” due to information which should not be shared outside your department and it’s important to be aware of these limits, but ask yourself this: does the client already know? One of the limits managers frequently want to place on the truth is revealing how bad a situation is, for example how many days work is backlogged. Not smart. Your clients can count. They KNOW how many days work is backlogged, because it’s their work! Acting like the backlog is an internal secret only we know about is plain dumb, and the damage it does to your client relationships elevates it from dumb to stupid. Don’t be stupid. Be truthful, particularly about things the client already knows!

  • Be reliable. See the section on Reliability for more about what reliability really is. In short, it’s being reliable for yourself and your actions, not for the processes which you don’t control, not for other people, not for the IT systems. Let’s say a client’s task has been stalled for two weeks because a process is broken and there’s no estimate for an up-time. This scares most service providers because they think they have nothing to give the client. They’re wrong. You have your own reliability. Report status to the client, schedule another status report for 2-4 days in the future (date AND time), and contact them exactly as scheduled even if you have no new information. Simply being responsive and reliable IS something of value you can deliver that will impress most clients…..because they’re not used to it, particularly in the worst situations when the authority doesn’t have progress to report.

  • Add “I don’t know, but I can find out” to your vocabulary. Too many people freeze up on teleconferences they’re hosting as “the authority” when asked a question for which they don’t have the answer. The vast majority of your clients understand that being the authority does not make you some kind of all-knowing sage. What clients figure out fast and disrespect is people who fake knowledge they don’t really have, and those who promise to get answers that they usually fail to produce. Be honest about what you don’t know. If it’s something you should know, get the information and pass it on like you said you would. The more you exhibit this reliability for getting information as opposed to knowing everything, the more people will respect you…and your authority.

I’ve said a lot about achieving confidence and authority from simply “being there” for clients and being communicative, as if solving problems and real achievements don’t matter. They do matter, very much. I am emphasizing what I believe people don’t know that they can add to their CRM repertoire to improve their relationships. Of course you have to have specific, tangible results, solve problems and get things done; I assume you know that and are already doing it. The problem I am addressing is that when a service provider cannot produce a result or solution they’ll normally “disappear” and be unfindable by the client. Big mistake. If anything, that’s when you intensify your client contact, with confidence in your own reliability, deriving authority from availability and communication more than anything else.

3. Neutrality

This could be a hot topic. Neutrality means that you don’t automatically side with your department, or even your employer. Employees have legal and ethical duties to the organization that pays them, to their department, and to their clients when they’re mediating relationships between a client and an outsider such as a vendor. But that doesn’t mean you should side with “your side” in every case. If you’re a buyer your internal client is not always right in a dispute with a vendor. If you’re an IT service provider for internal clients your department is not always right in disputes with those clients.

But won’t your client relations be better if you always side with and fight for them? Maybe today, but not in the long run, and not to the ultimate level of success you could achieve with a more neutral position. Inevitably you’re going to be in situations where you have no choice and must do things or make your client do things they do not like. If you’ve exhibited neutrality, standing up for what’s right, clients are going to have more trust in your position when it really counts.

Neutrality pays back too. As a buyer I had a procurement where the product being delivered had a disastrous fault and I was expecting a nasty situation with the vendor. This was going to cost them a fortune! We met with the vendor. The vendor laid out everything they had already done and a precise timeline for their plans in the immediate future. They asked for required delivery dates on replacement product and made clear that it did not matter what the dates and quantities were, they would deliver. Period. There was nothing they had not already thought of and done, before we even sat down. Much credit goes to the vendor, but some goes to my employer’s impeccable procurement ethics, and some goes to me for an established neutrality, standing up for vendors in disputes when the clients were not in the right…and being sure the vendors knew it. Our reservoir of corporate and personal goodwill probably influenced this vendor to respond in a spectacular fashion when we needed it most.

Unfortunately if you’re in an organization that demands 100% fealty you’re never going to be able to deliver total CRM because total CRM demands the ability to speak up for what is right. There are few things that will destroy your CRM credibility more completely than standing up for something that is wrong, and obviously so. Furthermore, the respect you acquire from all parties when you’ve established a reputation for “doing the right thing” will go a long ways to mollify the “losing” party in any disagreement. It’s psychology 101 – we humans look for and latch onto information that supports established beliefs. If clients trust you because of your established neutrality championing what’s right, they’ll be biased to see things your way in the future so their established perception of you doesn’t have to change.

I am not suggesting you have a steadfast independence no matter what. That can lead to having no job. There are times when questionable decisions are policy, and the right thing is to support them as best you can. But when poor decisions are made and they’re not policy, having the courage to state that the emperor has no clothes is great CRM. And it’s not about disrespecting your department. It’s about accepting the challenge of leading your department in a better direction, which is within your power as a staffer. (By using your great CRM with your management!)

4. Generosity of Spirit

You need to genuinely like people. You need to genuinely want to help, and be not just willing, but happy, to go out of your way to make things work for people and make their lives better. You have to be generous with you.

You’re thinking, “With all I have to do already?!?” As service providers we usually have our noses to the grindstone trying to cope with the influx of email and service tickets and phone calls and management demands and an idea or dream of our own for something we’d like to accomplish with respect to the service we’re delivering. Who has time?

I do, and you can too. It’s not about being a martyr. It’s about feeling that my success, which I want a lot of (very un-martyrish), is tied to making others succeed and making the company succeed. Sure, that can be a little naïve sometimes, but it’s not a bad philosophy for success. What could be better than doing something that makes someone else happy, and being personally rewarded for it (by being paid, recognized, and promoted for doing it well)? It almost seems like cheating. It’s why I love CRM. (If more than a few people read this, and I don’t get trolled to death for a misplaced word with an unfortunate meaning that hadn’t occurred to me, I might write an article about dealing with “overwhelming” workloads. I’ve spent 20 years “overwhelmed”; doesn’t that describe just about every administrative environment? You can be overwhelmed and at the same time be in control, confident, very happy with your environment, and end up promoted!)

You’re thinking, “That’s all saccharine and gooey. Give me something practical.” OK: fractious relationships take more work to maintain and create more labor than good relationships. In a bad relationship

  • Neither you nor the other party has the knowledge required to make things run smoothly and efficiently.

  • The other party has no incentive to be helpful or do anything to lessen your workload.

  • The other party will sometimes intentionally create work just to be irritating. For example, submitting the same service request two, three, (ten?) times as an expression of their frustration, when they know the duplicate requests are just going to bog you down.

Giving generously of yourself and your knowledge plays a role in alleviating these useless work creators. CRM is an investment that pays back much of the time that’s put into it in more cooperation from clients and greater efficiency.

5. Active Involvement

This is about doing more than just sitting at your desk doing phone and email. Get in the trenches with your client! The opportunities may be scarce, particularly for distant clients, so watch for them and jump on them when they arise. When I took over a purchasing portfolio supporting a marketing department, I didn’t understand why the marketing staff spent hours at the printing plant for press checks. At the first opportunity I showed up at the plant for an 8:00 a.m. press check to learn about the process. The marketing staff was amazed. No buyer had EVER shown enough interest in their world, their jobs, their concerns, to just “show up,” physically. It changed the entire dynamic of the relationship between marketing and procurement.

Get out there; be actively, physically involved and present when you can. We administrators are white collar people with clean hands with a tendency to freak in the presence of a leaky toner cartridge. If you can literally get some dirt on you mucking about in the client’s world it’s a totally unexpected gesture that will impress. But don’t just “muck about” for show. This is your opportunity to learn things about the client’s situation you’ll not discover any other way and thereby increase the value of your contribution for the benefit of all.

6. Enthusiasm for the Vision

Contrast this with Neutrality, where I said you don’t always side with your department, and you do stand up for what is right, regardless of who is right and who is wrong. Neutrality means you don’t rah! rah! rah! your organization’s every idea with equal enthusiasm. But Neutrality doesn’t mean being neutral about organizational vision.

Staff often think the “vision thing” isn’t for them. The corporate or departmental vision is so….distant, sometimes fantastic (in the sense of “ridiculous”), so feebly linked to this client’s problem, today, right here, on this phone call. Let management dream those pie-in-the-sky dreams.

Wrong! Vision is for everyone. Most of all, it’s for your clients. Aren’t you trying to take the organization, and them, to a distant goal that’s going to be fantastic? (If you’re not, find another organization.) Aren’t you asking them to put up with some stuff today that’s not the most efficient, or useful, or directly beneficial to today’s problems, because it’s paving the way for some really great things down the road? Almost certainly you are. And too many people, sometimes even in management, are silent or apathetic in the face of client criticisms of the current state of affairs. If the “current state” is necessary to prepare for an amazing future, get on the bandwagon and SELL IT for all it’s worth.

Are clients going to buy in and jump on the bandwagon with you? Probably not; that’s not your objective. Your objective is to demonstrate that you believe in the vision and give them at least a peak. Remember Neutrality, and how much credibility it gives you. If you’ve established Neutrality and the trust that goes with it clients will give you the benefit of the doubt on some discomfort today to realize tomorrow’s vision, even if they don’t personally believe or even care.

We all dream about our own futures. “Vision” is the corporate version of dreaming about a better tomorrow, and the best corporations have a robust process for ensuring that those dreams are realized with concrete steps to make them reality. Help with that – by buying in yourself, and showing your clients that you’re on board and more importantly what’s in it for them.

7. Reliability

Self-evident, really, but I’m amazed by the amount of “customer service” I’ve received, particularly from internal service providers, where I was told, “We have no idea when that task will be done.”

In my experience most anger from internal clients is the result of them having the experience of their requests and problems entering a black hole from which they only have a 50% chance of receiving a solution. In a few weeks. Or months. Maybe.

I’ve been in more than one situation where circumstances were abysmal and services that should have been delivered in two days were routinely taking weeks. A recipe for inevitable client rage? No, absolutely not.

The standard thinking in this scenario is, “We can’t spend time updating clients on status. If we’re always updating status, we’re never going to get the real work done and catch up, and things will only get worse.” Only partly true. If you update clients only when clients call, yeah, you’ll never get ahead. For each client query you have to figure out who they are, what their issue is, where their issue is in all those stacks of paper or buried in the depths of a cryptic system which is probably part of the reason the problem exists in the first place, what their issue’s status is, and what you might be able to do about it next, and when. It takes forever to update status “on demand,” doing so usually makes things worse, and therefore clients can’t get status information even when they’re waiting 20 times longer than they should for results.

Here’s a better way. Look at your backlog in total, devise a system to organize it, get it organized, and then create a schedule for addressing it. Say you typically complete eight issues per day. Take your total backlog and schedule it out on a calendar as far into the future as necessary at a rate of six or seven issues per day. Contact all your clients and give them the dates that each of their issues will start to receive your attention, and tell them you’ll be contacting them on that date with information, and by what method. In many cases an issue can’t be dealt with in totality the first time you look at it, so be clear that you’re STARTING on that date. Since you’ve scheduled conservatively at 6-7 issues per day, when you typically complete 8 issues per day, you’ll often be contacting clients before they expect to hear from you. The last step is incredibly simple: STICK TO YOUR CONTACT COMMITMENTS! Even when you have no progress to report, contact your clients EXACTLY as you’ve said you would.

Client reaction will be almost entirely favorable. When clients know their issues are with someone (a) they have a name and phone number for, (b) they can reach, and (c) more importantly, who keeps in touch with them, most client discontent disappears. They just want to know that it’s going to be taken care of and isn’t lost somewhere in “the system”. I’m not saying they’ll be happy with a four-week wait for something that should take two days, but the vast majority of clients will be remarkably patient and understanding if they just have (a) (b) and (c), and Reliability is the key.

Wait – isn’t this just as time consuming as answering status requests from the 25 to 75% of clients who’ll call? Not in my experience. If you have to spend time to organize your work and come up with a plan for conquering it in any case, and you should, then the only added time burden is the client contact time, less what you were going to spend responding to random requests. Granted that can still be a lot of time. So ask around the group to see if anyone has any ideas about automating an email, or some other solution. For example, did you know you can add Visual Basic for Applications code to the Excel spreadsheet you’re already using to track status for yourself that can generate and transmit email using Outlook, pulling the required data points from the spreadsheet like a Word MailMerge? You don’t need a $50K contract with your internal IT solutions group; you only need to find the smart person with a bit of programming background who likes a challenge on the side. I know because that person’s me.

8. Two-Way Respect

This is potentially the thorniest of the CRM elements in my toolkit because it’s TWO-way respect. I respect my clients, but they have to respect me for the relationship to work at its ultimate level, I can’t control that, and sometimes a party on the other side will be very motivated to disrespect me.

Two-Way Respect is something you need to think about carefully, being open to any ideas about how to accomplish it, and paying attention to what feels right to you personally. I’m going to present two ideas, my way and another method I’ve seen successfully implemented. Why two? Because my way, while right for me, is risky.

I worked with a team lead on a portfolio where the client side was led by a consultant whose strategy was to look “impressive” by being rude, bullying and condescending on a non-stop basis. My lead’s approach to dealing with this was to counter with a flood of kindness. The ruder the consultant got, the more polite my lead got.

The client was embarrassed by their own consultant. My lead’s counter of pure sweetness made the consultant look worse and worse week by week. What he tried as a power play, she turned into the shovel he used to dig his own grave. As a contracted consultant the bully’s tenure was finite and may have been shortened by my lead’s approach, he eventually moved on, and the relationship with the client improved immediately based on their respect for my lead’s patience and perseverance.

My approach is the opposite of my lead’s. I do not tolerate bullies. Let’s be careful to understand what I mean by “not tolerate”. Great CRM – or any CRM at all – does not react to every emotion, insult or complaint from a client. Great CRM is taking antagonistic relationships where the emotions are negative, the insults and complaints frequent, and creating respect, even friendship. Great CRM is being glad – genuinely – that an upset person with an intractable problem called you and vented out their anger on your phone – because now you can help, add value, solve a problem, and turn a negative, destructive dynamic dragging the organization down into something positive that builds the organization up.

CRM is all about being absolutely fine with a whole lot of “unpleasant” because you don’t see it as unpleasant, you see opportunity. But there is a limit.

What is the limit and exactly how do you handle it? I ran into great difficulty with these questions, wrote and deleted a lot of paragraphs, and finally understood that I have not tested my own idea sufficiently to be any kind of authority on this tactic.

I believe there is a place for drawing boundaries and pushing people back across the line. I believe that with a certain type of opponent who dispenses respect relative to strength, a demonstration of strength increases respect and improves relationships.

I have challenged people of far greater power and brought them into line, but on relatively modest infractions of rules. I have run into bullies outside of work, dressed them down pretty good, and achieved long-standing positive relationships. But I have not faced the challenge required to speak to you with authority – the challenge my lead faced with the consultant in the workplace.

I present my strategy in addition to my lead’s far safer strategy because her’s is dependent on outlasting the opponent. What if they can’t be outlasted? What if they’re a permanent employee with seniority, a critical vendor where there are no alternatives, an important client? Outlast is probably not an option.

If you stand up to someone do not escalate the situation. Our natural inclination in confrontation is to be “bigger and badder” than the opponent. Our animal ancestry tells us instinctively that escalating – being the bigger threat – is the best strategy. The office is a long way from the jungle and that is not a good idea. Drawing the line and pushing the opponent back across it can – must – be done professionally and calmly. In the office environment it’s the combination of firm strength with professional calm that creates respect.

I’m not looking forward to my own “consultant from hell” but…I kind of am. It’s a CRM challenge I have not faced and there’s a hole in my CRM paradigm as a result. I’d really like to prove how to make that situation work!

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I recognize the conceit of thinking that is the only potential hole. There are about as many theories of CRM as there are people. That’s a given because we’re all individuals, we all work a little differently, and we’re all going to succeed with others using different tactics. Take what works for me, give a few ideas a try, and see what works for you. Then pass on what you’ve learned. Because I’m looking for new ideas too.

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Last updated 11/02/17: Added admonition against escalating conflicts in section "Two-Way Respect". Facing down an office bully, if necessary, is done calmly and with professional respect.

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