You Don’t Muzzle Sheep

It’s fair to say that any mature SSC has driving business value as a key part of its strategic framework. Becoming that indispensable business partner, that Siamese twin, will only happen by seeking to review the current status quo from more radical and tactical grounds than ever before. The well is not dry, but the ideas to enhance and drive such value are not as richly available as they were 5-10 years ago. So, where next? I hear you ask. Which well will you turn to, to replenish your value-add agenda?

21st Century Finance and The Importance of People

All high performing leadership teams wish to manage SSCs with high-value strategic processes. To do this, attraction and retention of staff is key, as is the change in perception of SSC, both internally and externally, from transaction processing center to high-value hub, valued business partner and creator of sustainable value.

21st Century Finance SSCs will focus more and more on the role of people. The majority of mature SSCs have driven cost-reduction, standardization, service delivery and automation steadily over the past decade. It is my contention that people still remain the greatest asset to the ongoing development and growth of the mature SSC. My question though changes to: have mature SSCs really driven the people agenda steadily over the past years? Evidence indicates that talent management will impact even greater on value-add strategies. The unknown potential of our people will be released by the utilization of significant listening techniques.

Listening – The Overlooked Opportunity

As SSC leaders, can we say that we really listen to our people? And if we do, what actions do we take to make the most of what is contributed from this overflowing well? We are not talking about the "suggestion box" routine here, an anonymous 1980s style "idea-generator" for which the most appropriate suggestion ever entered was to dispense with this shallowest of listening media!

In the film Shrek, the main character noted that "it was better out than in!" and so right he was. Good leaders provide a number of media through which their people can input/contribute accordingly. The leaders can cogitate, peruse and deliberate over this feedback – but must take action. Mature SSCs act; the not-so-successful sit, scratch, watch and miss out. There is a real lesson here.

With all feedback, however, one must use a truth filter to determine what really is being provided and what needs to be done to maximize its usage.

An esteemed motivational coach, Jim Lawless, notes that "everyday, we write the book of our lives" and it’s up to us to wrestle control of the pen to ACT TODAY – time is limited and as precious a resource as any other. Here are some useful listening techniques which can really release SSC potential:

 Communication Forums / Staff Briefings / Town Hall Meetings / All Hands Sessions

Having staff members present at these open sessions will allow a plethora of ideas to be released, either directly, via the sessions, or as a result of the stimulus provided from attending. Working practices which operate effectively in PTP may find no truck with RTR, but at least you are unlocking the potential for greater thought.

 Brown Bag Sandwich / Lunch ‘n' Learn / Skip Level Reviews

There is no substitute for direct level communication/interaction, and the usage of Skip Level Reviews in whatever format can add significantly to the overall ideas generation. It’s amazing how much has been gained by leaders — information that would bypass them in normal daily routines — simply by breaking bread and sharing refreshments. Table etiquette would indicate that the real worth of these sessions grows with the delivery on promises made at the table.

 Spotlight Sessions (For Teams / Departments)

It should be a staple diet of any leadership team to have their individual teams and departments present at the regular management/operational sessions. This builds confidence and trust between both parties, and also provides an opportunity to listen to the ideas being generated as part of the growing "dance of trust". Each SSC team/department should be in front of its leaders at least once a year to grow this relationship.

 Continous Process Improvement Forums

This is one of the more conventional and well-worn tracks to follow for gathering those ideas that will drive effectiveness, efficiency and "value-add". Whatever forum you use, it must be open, driven and focused to maximize the potential of the ideas generation toolkit. Why wait for evasive systems changes to be made, when simple, better, faster processes can be built around the issue to force out the savings etc. earlier rather than later? A well that will never run dry!

 Staff Surveys / Your Say Feedback / Listening Lounges

Again, another of the conventional media used frequently to gather ideas, feedback and trends in driving a sustainable, strategic agenda. Listening lounges are growing in popularity as leaders attempt to revitalize the survey mentality by moving it away from simple "question and answer" to actual response review and exploration, hence the need for increasingly active listening/monitoring.

 Exit Interviews

Whatever the reason for leaving, most leaders wish they could bottle the temperament shown in exit interviews and utilize it during the period in which those attending such interviews were still gainfully employed! Documented opportunities can result from such sessions, because people feel free and confident about speaking out, which is not the case when they are still confronted with ineffective management or upward message mismanagement. Whatever the reason, it’s the leader’s and past employee’s loss if such elements are left to the last hurrah.

 Business Champion Service Management Reviews

Each client of the SSC should be allocated a Business Champion, a single internal SSC resource that knows the customer "inside-out" from key stakeholders and customers to specific business knowledge. Customers are demanding more and more business partnership to enhance their effectiveness, and to ensure the performance bar continues to rise for the successful customer and its SSC partner!

 Speak Up Lines / Talk Now

The value of anonymity has often be underestimated as leaders confuse whistle-blowing with actual genuine confidence-lacking communities wishing to voice their views and opinions, often in the way they feel may be best. Excessive use of this medium, however, questions the maturity of the service center in reality, regardless of the period in existence.

 Ask Your Leader / Open Door Hour / Talk To Your Leader

Either for reasons of respect or willingness to step forward from the flock, the opportunity to spend one-on-one time with the SSC leader has never been more powerful. Regularly creating the space in your diary for such sessions will allow the trust between staff member and leader to develop and grow as ideas filter upwards directly, not being "sanitized" by middle management. The drum-beat of onward communication in this instance is very powerful.

 Health / Wellness Open Lines / Support Groups

Despite the fact that feedback is anonymous, some well-thought-through ideas have been generated and documented by independent third parties. Support groups have been at the heart of several business-changing experiences taken on board by SSC leaders.

 Multimedia Listening Opportunities / Social Networking / Community Groups

One couldn’t close this chapter without delving into the opportunities provided by multimedia, in particular the building of online social networking/community groups. With no face-to-face contact, emerging trends indicate that this communication medium is driving significant idea generation (and plagiarism!) across industries and genres. It is predicted that social networking will overtake information gathering on the internet within the next five years, highlighting the need to take advantage of new, evolving and traditional listening techniques.

Real-Life Experiences

As a result of similar listening sessions in the early 1990s, a leading car manufacturing plant in the UK handed over responsibility for the operational management of the plant and its 6,000+ workers to its middle management team. This team was empowered, had operational authority delegated to it, and benefited from mechanisms built into day-to-day working routines to track activity and achievement. Over the next 24 months, productivity reached record levels, absence levels dropped away greatly and average assembly cost decreased significantly. At the same time, senior management found that the extra resource they now possessed could be utilized building a new business pipeline to guarantee the success and longevity of the plant. Albeit not an SSC, this example indicates the need to sometimes take a leap of faith — the net may not be that apparent when you jump, but one will always appear!

Active Listening and Taking Action

The graphs below illustrate the ability to take "listening" to another stage; in this case, real-time customer feedback in respect of scarce resource has been utilized to determine the most effective medium for communication and customer satisfaction. Without such active listening, it would be hard to obtain this tactical focus without just stumbling across it – it’s very unlikely that the service provider would have gathered this detail in any logical or coherent manner.

Ideas Gathered – What Next?

With ideas gathered and stored in some database format, what’s next? From here, you must involve your internal program management office to review, coherently evaluate and rank the various ideas in terms of effectiveness and efficiency. A recognized and effective SSC governance forum would be best equipped to take forward those ideas which would seal real value-add for the center and its customer base. Investment of some sort will be required, whether it be time, energy, information or money. The value-add movement will be driven by all four of these scarce resources moving in tandem together.


Four Mancunians sang about how "the past was yours, but the future’s mine" towards the end of the twentieth century. In hindsight, how right they were in respect of our industry. The ongoing changes in technology, the eastward location movement, and the transition from transactional processing to added-value business partnership, have put a steady drain on the opportunities available to continue moving up the value-add curve.

This article has indicated that the greatest resource of all can hold the key to even greater riches. Active listening, through any combination of the media noted above, will not only ease the value-add journey, but also grow the bond between leaders and team – which can only bode well for the future. Those who ignore this way forward may find the path along the value-add curve blocked, all for refusing to unmuzzle those sheep.


"Life has more imagination than our dreams can ever hold..." The challenge for us, as SSC Leaders, is to spend more time with the sheep and muzzle the wolves for a while longer. Then, and only then, will our dreams begin to reap the benefits which can be obtained from active listening.

About the Author

Dan Foley is the Business Service Center Director with ITV plc, the UK's largest commercial broadcaster operating a multi-platform, content driven business and one of Europe's leading production companies. Dan is a qualified accountant and has nearly nine years direct experience in the strategic, tactical and operational direction and management of shared services centers. Dan has been a key leader in the growth of National Australia Group, Diageo and Marks & Spencer's award winning services centers. A well-known and respected contributor on the SSC circuit, Dan never ceases to provide engaging, lateral and challenging insights to the fields of leadership, people and customer service.