By Tim Hayes []

Sportswriters love to make hay out of “there’s a cancer in the clubhouse” stories.  You know, the ones where, say, the offensive line of a football team starts sniping at the quarterback, or when a wide receiver mouths off against the coaches because he’s not getting the ball enough.

Sometimes those stories reflect genuine dissatisfaction and dissent within the team, disrupting what should be a cohesive collection of athletes striving toward a shared goal – the championship.  Other times, it’s much ado about nothing, or at least not enough of something to really matter.

Yet to the team’s fan base, those stories – however titillating they may be – also create doubt and unease.  If the guys on your favorite team can’t hang together without airing their dirty laundry in public, then they may not be able to carry themselves (and, by extension, you as a diehard fan) to the promised land and the title.

What’s the corollary in the world of business communication?  Unfortunately, it’s something that happens every day in too many instances to count.

During my time at a major financial services provider (pre-online banking, so I’m dating myself a bit), I oversaw communications for the retail side of the enterprise, which at that point included the branch network, ATMs, and customer telephone center.  All of those operations obviously were critical extensions of the bank and its brand, and all relied on back-office support from the corporation.

One of the continuous battles fought from a communications perspective, though, was trying to convince all employees in each of those customer-facing units to not throw blame on the other units or the central corporate support staff. 

We’d look at customer satisfaction data, direct correspondence from customers, phone center transcripts, and reports from anonymous “shoppers” paid to stealthily observe employee interaction with customers.  The results showed with spectacular, dispiriting consistency, a seeming “default” position among employees that told customers things like, “Oh, those guys Downtown, they never get stuff right.  Here, I’ll take that charge off your checking account,” or “Well, you know, the person we had managing this branch before was really good – now we have to do things ‘by the book,’ so you know how that goes.  But don’t worry, I’ll still take care of you the right way.”

Say, here’s a question.  Think of the place where you bank.  Do you make a distinction between your branch office and the corporate headquarters?  Between the ATM and the phone center or the online website?  Between Department A and Department D, whatever those departments may be?  Do you care what happens inside the walls of that institution to take care of your accounts, or do you just want your damn accounts taken care of properly?

Internal communications can be tough.  People inside large structures see where the walls are between internal functions, but customer’s don’t – until or unless an employee points them out and complains about them, that is.  Maybe employees say such things as a ploy to show empathy with a customer’s problem.  Maybe it’s a way to blow off steam.  Maybe it’s a way to puff up one’s own feathers over another person.  But regardless of why it happens, the bottom line is that it shouldn’t. 

Finding ways to communicate that message among employees remains an ongoing and uphill fight, yet ultimately a key factor in building a successful, growth-oriented organization.  Customers think of your enterprise as a single entity.  That’s your brand.  Protect it, don’t spit on it.  Because in the end, that’s really all you have to stand on. 

Copyright 2010 Tim Hayes Consulting