Reflections: Learnings from my Journey (3: Lynda Atherton-Miles)

I wish I’d known, back when I started, the value of customer relationships: that if you can create good relationships you can succeed no matter what the challenges.

Shared services has become a mature industry and these days we all understand the key components for successful shared services delivery. We can look at a new assignment and, almost by a tick-list, recognise whether a company is likely to be successful with a new project, or whether they are just fooling themselves given the environment they are in. Judgements can be made on how visionary their scope is – multi-functional, for example,  points to recognition of the value of shared services at the very top and elimination of functional turf protection, where just a Finance SSC tells us something else; cost-cutting or improvement-driven, greenfield or brownfield, single global instance or multiple system, country, regional or global scope: all tell us something about the drivers, the appetite for change and the potential for success.

But I have learned through hard experience that customer attitude towards the change is one of the most critical areas to evaluate because if you can be successful in building good relationships with your customers, you can succeed even if other key components are missing. I have worked for companies who were very poor at managing customer relationships. I’ve seen customers in denial, believing if they complained long and loud enough the project would be reversed, others where shadow organisations have been allowed to grow back into the businesses, where metrics have just been produced without relevance to the businesses, some who have focused high on ‘governance’ and low on business partnering – I’ve seen customers handled badly a lot of times. I know how hard it is to get anything done when customers are against you.

I have used that learning here at Cummins Business Services. My challenge has been to develop a shared services culture in a five-year-old SSO set up internally from within the business. I found almost a walled community where no-one from the businesses ever came in and no-one from CBS ever went out. I discovered an astonishingly high level of hostility from customers towards shared services. I found my leadership team worked in functional silos and without any structured customer focus.

And I took early and basic steps to deliver a better relationship. I know that customers like to see the whites of your eyes; they want to complain to your face. I visited each customer business and talked to their leadership teams – some told me they hadn’t seen anyone from CBS in years.

We now have quarterly review meetings with each of them; each functional leader acts as customer account manager to a business or a site and has to discuss issues across the whole range of CBS services. This has made them step out of individual functional comfort zones and now each functional leader has to link in with and develop relationships with their functional counterparts within the businesses – IT to IT leaders, Finance to controllers, HR services to HR leaders - and has to get stakeholder feedback from these groups as part of the annual performance review process.

Relationships go both ways: you have to stand up to customers sometimes. You have to teach them the rules of engagement  You have to let them burn their fingers a few times escalating issues and complaining to the top when the issue was really theirs before they learn to come to you first.  I always speak with data - I always present the true facts. Sometimes it is the fault of my organisation, but more often it is not – data and facts drive truth and future behaviours. You have to teach them and your own people, the fine line between genuine complaint and abuse - I never accept abuse of my people – I challenge it every time.

You also have to tell them all the time how good your organisation is and remind them of how things have improved since shared services hit town – a continual "Remember when?". In a Cummins context that might be: remember when you went to a site and you couldn’t connect and you couldn’t print and everyone had a different PC? Now look at that nice shiny laptop you’ve got, which you get swapped out every two to three years…and we take it away from you for a half hour and you get a new one all set up ready for you and you can go work straight away…and we do 30,000 swaps globally in 16 weeks….and you can go to any site and connect wirelessly to the network and work... and look, you can print anywhere…but do you remember? …and remember…when you didn’t know how much this costs?...when you didn’t know how many invoices you paid on time? Customers' expectations increase with every improvement you make, it’s important that they…remember how it used to be.

Ultimately, if you can get your customer to like and respect you, it makes it harder for them to be mean to you and your organisation, and then comes, acceptance, engagement and partnering. I’m glad I’ve learned the value of having good relationships with my customers…in the current tough economic climate, I need them to help me succeed – on the other hand, they need me too.

About the Author









Lynda Atherton-Miles is Director of Cummins Business Services - Europe/Africa, servicing the entire range of Cummins group of businesses in region as part of a global business services organisation. Lynda has been involved in shared services for over 10 years, working with major organisations including Seagram, Amoco, GE and Goodyear/Dunlop. She is a judge for SSON's Shared Services Excellence Awards Europe 2009 and is always interested in the future growth of the shared services industry.