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Last month, a longstanding client brought me in after reviewing some recent customer research. The company provides a relatively complex service, and one of their most common and unprompted customer complaints was that the company’s various service areas “worked in silos.”

Some staff leaders agreed that the organization was siloed and others did not, but they all recognized that the tone and consistency of the complaints meant that their customer experience needs work. The staff leaders also acknowledged that they often had trouble understanding what happened in other departments, or how other departments’ work and business lines affected “their” customers.

Silos Are Protective

In our initial facilitation, the leadership team was surprised — and possibly relieved — when I said you can’t just take silos down. Silos — whether for animal feed, missiles, or work processes — are protective devices. Busting them open and letting all the process steps spill out is like playing 52 Pickup with workplace procedures. Not only do silos provide safety; they’re sustained by organizational history, workflows, and cultural norms.

But when silo walls are completely impervious, employees can’t see how to help each other. When an organization is accused of siloing by customers or staff, it’s usually because its processes are highly controlled and inflexible; there are too many workarounds, bottlenecks, and pain points where work moves from one silo to another. Sometimes one silo’s guardians don’t even know what’s going on next door.

What can be done to maintain the necessary structure while reducing the “friction at the borders” that your customers or employees experience? How can you work smoothly across functional borders while maintaining necessary procedural integrity?

Examine External Factors

Whether you use a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) approach or plain old questions and answers, it’s crucial to evaluate what your customers want, and what their experience with your products and services is like. Customers expect one-stop shopping and one-touch service, and legacy processes may not deliver satisfactory experiences. You can’t afford friction in the customer experience, particularly if you’re providing purely discretionary services or if there are other providers in your marketplace.

Be aware of competitive offerings in your space, and try to assess whether the customers buying them differ from yours. Some companies use customer journey mapping or personas to talk about customer needs and satisfaction. Others take a more transactional approach, as if they’re providing a menu of choices, and whichever ones customers take are the ones that continue.

If you have multilayered customers, such as corporate entities with different individual buyers internally, you’ll need to develop deep knowledge of how the corporate entities function, where purchasing authority truly lies, and whether the internal purchasers are buying from one or more of your business units.

Examine Internal Factors

Once you know what your customers want, try a zero-based budgeting approach to assess operations and marketing effectiveness: If we weren’t already doing these processes, would we start them? Could there be better ways to do them? Do a gap analysis: How different is what we’re doing from what would be optimal? Where could we reduce redundancies and other friction in the system? Where could we add new, desirable features?

Try to remain agnostic about which groups or individuals in your organization are the “right” ones. Instead, match your functional needs to staff’s skills and capabilities, and identify which ones are missing.

One area that benefits significantly from this kind of review is the handling and processing of customer data, and who has access to it. If all organizational groups don’t have access to shared data — including situational and anecdotal data about customer dissatisfaction and process breakdown — then opportunities for innovation are reduced significantly.

Let the People Be a Different Kind of Protection

The leadership team may have high-level conceptual agreement that siloing is negative, but that agreement can fly out the window if individual leaders feel that changes will cause encroachments on their turf. Note if anyone throughout your chain of command expresses impatience with new ideas.

Encourage employees at all levels to check their work assignments and communications against the big-picture goals identified in the external review. Some people prefer security to openness, so make sure that what people are protecting is the integrity of work process and the quality of the customer experience — not their own preferences for things to continue the way they’ve always been.

And use customer comments as a form of early warning. Customers often bump into silo walls before staff begins thinking of them as a barrier, so keep listening and keep asking customers about their experience.