Published March 7, 2023
The structure of companies makes it easy for teams to end up working in isolation, but this is not ideal for client service. It makes life harder for client service teams, whose job is to ensure that those clients’ needs are met and that relationships with them are successful. This gives client service teams a vested interest in understanding cross-functional collaboration and ensuring that it’s done well.
In this article, we’ll look at:
Collaboration between departments is essential for several reasons:
In a general sense, the teams within an organisation are always working toward the same goals, set by the organisation’s high-level objectives. But translating high-level objectives into practical action means setting goals for individual teams, goals based on their specific areas of work.
Those goals shouldn’t inherently clash, but the way that they’re understood and interpreted can. Over time, goals can drift away from their original purpose, or the big picture can be lost. For example, the simple objective of making an effective interface for clients could lead a development team down the path of increasingly elegant but not a user friendly technology, while a client service team, listening to the clients, demands features from the product team, that the platform was never designed to support.
Cross-functional collaboration helps teams to establish compatible goals and to pursue them in a mutually supportive way, instead of working in silo.
It’s both natural and helpful for teams to specialise in their knowledge and skills. This lets them do their specific jobs better. But it also reduces their capacity to adapt to challenges outside that expertise.
Cross-functional collaboration lets teams overcome their limits by tapping into information and expertise from elsewhere. Need help negotiating a difficult situation? Talk to someone from sales. Need to understand the technological limits of a piece of software? Talk to a developer. Need to find out what clients want? Talk to the teams who interact with them every day.
A silo mentality, with everyone hunkered down in their own separate space, is one of the most harmful things that can happen to a company. It creates room for conflict between departments, prevents teams from working together, and creates waste through duplicated and even contradictory efforts.
Cross-functional collaboration has a two-way relationship with the silo mentality. Destroying silos makes it easier to collaborate, but collaboration also helps to break down those silo walls and to stop new ones from being built. If people are regularly collaborating with other teams, then they’re less likely to exclude them, more likely to treat them as colleagues rather than competition.
Communication between departments can be deceptive. High-level activity, such as regular briefing emails or company news pieces, can leave those in charge feeling like there is good communication. But unless that communication runs through all levels of the organisation, then the messages may not sink in at the level where they matter.
A lot of this is about relevance. The type of information that gets shared at the top, such as key projects and policy decisions, won’t mean much to people further down the hierarchy. It’s the practical steps that will affect colleagues’ work. Which of those are relevant will vary hugely, and they can’t all be fitted into an email.
There are also pieces of information too small to matter at the scale of official news distribution, but that are important further down the hierarchy. Who’s been recruited, promoted, or left? How have administrative processes changed? When will key team members be on holiday, slowing down responses? And remember, at the digital coal face, an administrative assistant is more likely than a departmental director to be the key player.
Cross-functional collaboration fosters an informal communication network along which information flows. Casual conversations, quick messages, and chatty emails tell teams what’s going on in other departments, both the smaller updates and larger strategic initiatives which are being applied.
A cooperative working culture is inherently more productive. By helping and supporting one another, people achieve more.
Cross-functional collaboration fosters this culture, encouraging colleagues to see each other as collaborators, to reach out for support when needed and to offer a helping hand. The whole organisation becomes one big team playing together against the rest of the industry, instead of competing against each other.
That’s the big picture on collaboration, but how does it look through the specific lens of a client service team?
Client service teams play a vital role in ensuring that clients are satisfied with a company’s products or services. They are responsible for developing strategic relationships with clients, providing support, and ensuring that clients’ needs are met.
This makes them the public face for the organisation, and the touchpoint clients come to whenever they need support. Client service teams become trouble-shooters and knowledge hub-spots whose daily work can touch on almost anything the company does, from billing to coding to marketing. Their job is to process all of these functions in a way that clients can understand, that makes the client journey smoother, and that increases company revenues through positive client relationships.
Cross-functional collaboration is key to client service work. There’s so much to process that client service teams can’t possibly know it all, so they need to lean on others.
To be successful, client service teams have to work collaboratively with all the other departments that affect a client, which ends up being almost everyone. Prominent examples includes sales, marketing, and product development. Each department has its own set of goals and objectives, and it is important for client service teams to understand these goals so they can provide the best possible service to clients. By aligning its efforts with these other teams, client service can encourage a fruitful relationship and the best outcome for clients.
When a client service team tries to work alone, they can end up misrepresenting situations to the client or making promises that can’t be kept, which puts pressure on colleagues and guarantees disappointment. When other teams try to work with the client directly but don’t involve client service, efforts are likely to become fractured and uncoordinated, even contradictory, and frustrating the client. A client service team therefore acts as a central hub, coordinating efforts from across the business. It should be an inherently collaborative role. A client service team should know who to go to for any given problem and be in a position to ask their help.
If cross-functional collaboration is so important, how can you encourage it?
Firstly, it’s important to create clarity between teams.
Within teams, colleagues need to understand what each individual's role is and instinctively grasp the shared assumptions they work with. This requires systems to be in place which create clarity, avoiding frustration and miscommunication.
At the very least, each team should have an organisational chart that’s easily accessible by other teams. This shouldn’t just give people’s job titles, which are often generic or meaningless to outsiders, but should explain which tasks different people deal with. That way, others know who to talk to.
If possible, create a central hub with shared indicators to show progress on projects across different teams, especially on shared projects. This can be used to show when teams are busy, or when they may be more readily available for support. This system should be used to let teams know when key streams of work are finished, so that they can move on to the next steps. For example, if marketing are sending out a key new message to all existing clients, then it’s useful for the client service teams to know.
This increased transparency, making work visible and letting people know how they all fit in, is useful in preventing informational silos and the walls that get flung up around them. It makes it easier for employees to understand who they should talk to about collaboration, when, and what the results are.
If possible, agree shared goals and KPIs, so that teams are truly pulling in the same direction. These should be brought in once teams are already starting to collaborate and trust each other. If they’re introduced before that, they may cause conflict over perceived failings, alienating instead of bonding employees.
One key area where clarity and encouragement come together is in defining the collaborative space.
People will need to be encouraged to work collaboratively, especially if they’re used to working in separate teams. You should therefore create time and space for collaboration, even if that starts just by freeing up time for your own team to help others, in the expectation that other teams will follow your example further down the line. Empower people to work across teams, not just by permitting them but by encouraging them, until it comes instinctively.
Where appropriate, create meaningful cross-team projects. By showing a need to work together and creating a space for it, these can foster collaboration that will then expand beyond the project and into wider ways of working.
That said, you do need to set limits. It’s possible to collaborate on almost anything, but while some collaborations are useful, others may be unnecessary or even unwanted, infringing on work that a team will do better on its own. If people try to collaborate on projects where it’s not needed or expected, this may create frustrations, either at other teams or at the collaborative process itself.
To avoid this, set boundaries that are clear but open to movement later. Knowing the limits will give people the security to collaborate better. Knowing that those limits aren’t fixed in stone will give them the courage to come forward when something doesn’t fit your current model and when there’s a case to change the rules.
The tools we have shape our ways of thinking and working, so you need to have tools that encourage collaboration.
Most organisations will have teams working with a central CRM system, project management tools and collaboration software. Encourage teams to communicate using the same apps, to keep information flowing and avoid messages being missed. If colleagues aren’t using shared systems, then find out why. It probably means that something in the system isn’t suitable for their work and needs adjusting or replacing so that they can collaborate more effectively.
For Client Service teams, investing in the appropriate tech stack is key to ensuring their success with clients. A client intelligence platform, such as Kaizan can also act as a smart AI assistant, guiding client service teams on how to increase client retention and scale revenue.
Collaboration is impossible without clear communication, so ensure you facilitate that communication. Encourage employees to talk with other colleagues, to ask questions rather than make assumptions, and to think about the best way of explaining what they need.
Look at the language used across the company and how it differs from team to team. Look for jargon that has different implications in different departments, phrases whose specific meanings aren’t understood outside their teams, or terminology that goes unexplained. Try to build a shared language and understanding to avoid miscommunication.
Encourage open feedback. This can be tough, especially when there are challenges, but it can also be encouraging when praise is involved.
Cross-functional collaboration is important for every department, but particularly for client service teams. Look for ways to foster better collaboration across the organisation and the improve the experience that you provide for clients.