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Commentary Search

Zero Degrees of Separation

  • Published
  • By Capt. Jeff Bishop, APR
  • 131st Bomb Wing Public Affairs
"Six degrees from Kevin Bacon" is a longstanding cultural meme; indeed, it's so old that it pre-dates the term "meme" -- and the Internet that fosters them. Its eternal youth can perhaps be attributed to the truthiness of the statement (if not the similar timelessness of Bacon himself), which holds that there are just six degrees of separation - six people - between any person on the planet and Bacon. You know a guy who knows a lady who has a friend whose mom's best friend knows Kevin Bacon.

A similar concept exists in the world of work - be it banking, industry, government or education. Whether your business makes products or delivers services, there are people just one degree away from the ultimate customer, but there are many, many others who indirectly support that customer - though they be two, three or more degrees of separation away.

In most organizations, an employee's perceived value - the assessed worth of their work; their product; their role - diminishes by distance, or degrees of separation, between them and the customer. The only people seen to have a customer service role in the organization are those in customer-facing roles; those "on the front lines" or "at the tip of the spear."

Because of this, these are the only ones who get customer service training; who are given a customer service standard; who are empowered to take action to improve the customer experience; and who are held accountable for customer service outcomes.

Frankly, this kind of thinking is all wrong. No matter who directly serves him or her, their customer is our customer - and the "internal" customer that we serve behind the lines is our proxy for the ultimate customer. In response to the needs of our customer, the entire organization must be aligned to provide the best service, at every stage of our processes, to all customers.

Seen in the negative, mistakes or poor performance at the fourth, fifth or sixth degree of separation simply get passed on to the next-closer employee, ultimately negatively impacting the final product or service delivered to the customer.

Take an example from my day-job work, where my organization designs, develops and delivers workforce education and training programs and products to clinicians who take care of our nation's Veterans. Clearly there are a number of degrees separating the work that we do from direct Veteran patient care. Nonetheless, we're all in it together for the Veteran:

- If the performance or learning needs of the clinicians for whom we're building training aren't well conceived by our learning consultant and the client, then the project team starts out at a disadvantage, with a smaller chance of hitting the mark with their instructional design - because they are aiming at the wrong target to begin with.

+ In turn, if the project team doesn't use the best instructional design methodologies, some amount of learning will probably still occur, but at a reduced rate.
+ Then, if my marketing and communication function doesn't make effective use of channels, messaging and motivators to get the word out about the training, then the clinicians who need the training will never find or be compelled to take it.
= Through our collective customer service shortcomings at every internal transaction, a VA doctor or nurse might not acquire the right clinical skills to provide the best care to the Veteran.

If the customer service shortfalls aren't fixed in intermediate steps, they are instead compounded and aggravated, such that the Veteran is the ultimate loser in the transaction. Accordingly, all intermediate customers warrant the exact same quality of service as we'd provide the Veteran herself if we were directly serving her. Because by virtue of our interconnected relationships, we are.

Clearly, while it may be an entertaining party game or meme, "six degrees" doesn't provide a good basis for quality customer service. Let's not, then, view one's position as X degrees separated from the customer based on where placed on an organizational chart or as determined by one's defined role. A better notion is strive to be so in touch with those that you are serving that you are all but of a single accord in respect to his or her needs. To maximize quality and service at every transaction, all the way down the line to the Veteran herself. To fix previous service errors at your level and not pass them on or compound them.

In sum, we must always to operate as if there are zero degrees of separation between us and the customer -- be that customer Kevin Bacon, or someone truly significant, like a Veteran.