Lay Down Your Inter-departmental Arms

February 28, 2019
8 Minutes
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In SaaS businesses, operating results are earned every single day; and good businesses are made, not found. Writing here about building organizations, learning from the experience, and appreciating the ride.
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Cats and dogs. Oil and water. Hatfields and McCoys. Some things just don’t play well together. In fact, they seem almost purpose-built for conflict. I was reminded (again) this past week that the SaaS version of such predictable tension is the running feud between Sales and Client Success departments. There is undeniable and inherent tension between the two groups, and it’s easy to see why: the remit of Sales is to maximize bookings / hit targets in the immediate-term, whereas Client Success is responsible for turning every customer into raving fans long into the future. But this doesn’t need to lead to incessant battling. In fact, I’ve found that a few simple exercises can go a long way toward disarming the inter-departmental combat.

1. People Are People

I’ve observed that a fair bit of this conflict stems from a simple value-perception problem. Specifically, bookings are valued very highly in young SaaS businesses, with new sales (and often Sales people) celebrated as a life-line during a company’s fragile, early days (I wrote a bit about this here). Somewhat irrationally, those same organizations tend to be less overt and unrestrained in celebrating renewals, which lead to multiple years of recurring revenue. The predictable result is inequity in terms of how team members in Sales and Client Success perceive they are valued in the business. This, in turn, can breed resentment and conflict. A simple solution to this pervasive problem? Have the groups talk about it. But, to avoid reverting into counter-productive naming and shaming, be sure to do it in a thoughtful and structured way. I particularly like the following simple exercise:

With each person using a sheet of paper, ask people from Sales and CS, respectively, to privately rate and record on a scale of 1–5 their responses to the following two questions:

  • How valuable do you think your job function is to the success of the company?
  • How valuable do you think your counterpart (in X department) perceives your job function is to the success of the company?

Then have them exchange papers and discuss. No matter the written responses, substantive and productive discussions generally ensue. Why?

  • When answers align perfectly (this can happen in a whole range of situations and for different reasons), it creates a safe space for breakthrough discussion. People can express pleasant surprise, but also inquire about behaviors that are inconsistent with the responses (e.g. “I’m delighted we’re on the same page, I had the impression from all of the free services in X sales contract that the Client Success team’s time was less valued.” Or, “That’s great…I had the impression that you think I mismanage clients’ expectations about functionality in the sales cycle or discount too much at the end of the quarter.”
  • When answers are misaligned, it can highlight to people how their actions toward cross-department colleagues are being perceived, which they may never have realized or even considered. This can also spur otherwise uncomfortable or taboo conversations to take place in a healthy, but unavoidable, way.

2. We Mock What We Don’t Understand

Let me say that I just don’t buy the argument that Sales and CS people are just intrinsically different and incompatible. Rather, my experience is that they both want the same things — to win in the market, for their customers to be successful, and to thrive as a company and as individual professionals. The two groups just define and prioritize those objectives differently, (which is hardly surprising, given their respective areas of responsibility).

Beyond that though, the groups generally just don’t understand each other well. Again, this is unsurprising: SaaS businesses are fast-paced, resource-constrained environments. So, it’s far too rare that people receive adequate training on their own job function, let alone on the responsibilities of others. As a result, people have only a vague understanding of others’ work and almost no appreciation for the things that can make that work difficult or frustrating. And while people are hyper-aware of what they themselves produce, they are far less cognizant of their cross-department colleagues’ work product. The exception to this, of course, is when their peers’ actions make their own job more challenging…in which case the cross-department ceasefire is cancelled and hostilities resume. The painfully obvious (but difficult to execute) solution: educating people about the inter-dependent nature of their departments. For this, I like an exercise that centers around what each job function (a) produces and (b) consumes from the other.

Instructions: Ask members of Sales and Client Success to work together to identify 3–5 things for each of two categories:

  • What are the things that Sales absolutely needs from CS to be successful?
  • What are the things that CS absolutely needs from Sales to be successful?

I specifically like to create a grid where groups can brainstorm in isolation about what one department produces for the other. And then you do the same thing for what that department consumes from the other. Then switch departments. Because people from different departments are working as one group in this exercise, it tends to highlight just how different their perceptions / responses / pain points are at the outset…and how much and how quickly they learn to bridge the gap. I’ve focused this on Sales and CS here, but I like to do this one across all departments. The end result of this is a Give-Get Grid, which I wrote a bit about here, and which I’ll go into in more depth in a future post.

3. Our Strengths are Our Weaknesses

I’m a fan of the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment for many reasons. Among them is the fact that it gives us language to call someone out for counter-productive behavior, but to do it in an inoffensive way. Specifically, StrengthsFinder is a diagnostic that allows people to identify what their core strengths are in terms of how they think, work, and view the world. Like many diagnostics, the explanatory write-ups for each of the framework’s 34 Strengths tend to resonate clearly with people when they receive their personal test results. And one of the most valuable parts of the assessment, for our purposes here, is how it convincingly and pragmatically points out this truism: our greatest strengths — left unchecked — frequently also present themselves as our great weaknesses. For example, “people exceptionally talented in the Activator theme can make things happen by turning thoughts into action. They want to do things now, rather than simply talk about them.” This is awesomely valuable when the situation demands speed. But this inclination can be counter-productive in situations that require great care, planning, or coordination. Likewise, Activators can be incredibly aggravating to those for whom Focus — “following through and making the corrections necessary to stay on track by prioritizing, then acting” — is their top strength. In such a case, it is undeniably better for the Focus person to politely / humorously ask the colleague to “tamp down their Activator tendency” than it is to tell them that the whole team wants to strangle their impetuous, hyper-active, cowboy throat. You know how these conversations can go…

Give People a Pass:

In closing, I want to broaden the scope beyond Sales and CS to cover all departments; there is a degree of tension among all of them, and they can all stand to examine how they intersect. I also want to acknowledge that these minor tactics / frameworks may be powerless in the face of true interdepartmental dysfunction or deep personal animosity among team members(!). But if that is the case, then more serious measures are likely needed to change the team…or change the team. That said, I’ve observed that most issues arise in an environment where different departments truly do share goals and respect for one another — they just need help getting aligned.

In such cases, we all need to step back and just give people a break. That’s right, give them a pass, and lay down your inter-departmental arms. Recognize colleagues’ perspective and take the high road, already! The Hatfield-McCoy thing does no one any good, and more importantly, isn’t worth the distraction from the ever-pressing needs of clients and the business at large. Frankly, it’s a pure waste to dwell or be mired in it. Use it; work it to affect mutual advantage and company success. There is usually a way. Find the leverage. It’s there to be found.


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