Companies Have Split Personalities

—Sam Ford

[Note: This article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review on 2/26/2013. Read it here.]

If companies are individuals, they often seem to have dissociative identity disorder. For many organizations, each division, function and channel has its own personality. And, frequently, there are no core corporate values consistently reflected from communications across the enterprise, so that various departments have no common ground from which to work.

For most large organizations, the core of their corporate infrastructure was developed during the broadcast era. At a time when most media formats were distinct and channels of communication to various specialized audiences more direct, the company saw value in managing relations with each of its stakeholders largely in isolation.

In effect, this means many entities treat government relations, investor relations, and human resources as distinct departments aimed at a specialty audience with little coordination.

Meanwhile, the different parts of the organization understands customer in disparate ways: the sales team, the “.com” team, the customer service team, the marketing team, and the corporate communications team are all communicating with the customer, but inconsistently. Not without good reason. Each of these departments is organized by the training and professional standards of their discipline. For instance, customer service professionals are often assessed based on metrics of efficiency: how quickly can they get off the phone with each customer, and how many calls can they take in an hour? The sales team might be measured by the exact opposite metrics: how deeply can they engage a customer? And marketing and communications may be measured by numbers of impressions: what scale of customers can they reach?

As my co-authors and I write in Spreadable Media, this means that customers’ relationships with the companies they do business with can be quite complicated. For instance, a cable provider might call a customer once a month to promote the “triple play” package. But, when that customer encounters a service disruption and calls in, it may take 15 minutes to get through to someone.

In actuality, the customer service and sales teams report into different members of the C-Suite, work on campuses in different states, and may be run by leaders who barely know one another. But, as a customer, we often buy into the idea that corporations are individuals, and we expect their brands to behave as human beings would.

Even within marketing and communications, these disconnects are significant. Corporate communications, the “digital team,” and the various marketing/advertising divisions sometimes find themselves pitted against one another, vying to “own” various channels of communication. These internal turf wars are often mistaken as corporate greed for power but, in actuality, may determine whose team might expand and who might eventually have to let people go.

In the face of such infrastructural challenges, trying to implement new, qualitative efforts to build deeper relationships with customers, to listen more thoroughly to various stakeholders, and to act as an ombudsman on the customer’s behalf to better align the organization in service of its audiences can be daunting, and the continued reliance on traditional metrics understandable.

The solution lies in finding common-sense ways to disconnect the flow of communications solely from operating via the org chart. The more horizontal connections an organization creates, the more collaboration that can be created outside these silos. For this to work enterprise-wide, senior leadership must facilitate an environment which makes internal collaboration safe.

But this isn’t something that just happens at the enterprise level. Teams within the organization can also make this kind of change a priority without waiting for a “cure-all” approach from the top. I’ve seen many instances where communications and customer service, or marketing and sales departments, have streamlined longstanding disconnects, due to the commitment of both teams at all levels to foster a more sustained and integrated working relationship.

No matter what state internal collaboration is in at your organization, though, the urgency of this issue is clear. Companies that are truly connecting all their communications internally stand a better chance of seeing potential crises, flagging potential opportunities, and moving swiftly as the world around them changes. And those that don’t will continue to turn a blind eye as their brand equity slowly erodes, one seemingly insignificant inconsistency at a time.

Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy at Peppercomm and co-author, with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green, of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. Sam can be found on Twitter @Sam_Ford.