Customer Care as a Litmus Test for Innovation and Agile Change

Customer care as entity, its function and status within a company, can act as a good litmus test for a company’s culture, its product management, and thus its potential for innovation and agile change.

If customer care is regarded solely as a cost center that needs to be outsourced, agile change is unlikely to happen in that organization.

Customer Care as an Integral Part of Agile Change and the Innovation Process

Yesterday, I was listening in the morning to a16z’s podcast “‘In the Eye of a Tornado’: Views on Innovation from China” with Connie Chan and Clay Shirky on, for example, the amazing process innovations from Xiaomi.

Age of Product: Customer Care as a Litmus Test for Innovation and Agile Change

In the evening, I was reading Talia Jane’s “An Open Letter To My CEO”, describing her dire work situation as an entry level customer care agent at Yelp/Eat24 in the San Francisco area.

To me, both sources reflect a different understanding of what customer care is about:

  • On Xiaomi’s side, it is an integral part of the innovation process, collecting feedback from customers. Customer care is thus contributing to product discovery as well as the improvement process, becoming a natural ally of the product management.
  • On the Yelp/Eat24 side, customer care seems to be regarded primarily as a cost center. It seems to be a backup solution to appease disgruntled customers, but not as an essential part of the company culture.

Customer Care

In my experience, customer care can be the vanguard of change and innovation, if the right people are involved. It is true, that most often, customer care agents are not leading pay-role. Nevertheless, they are highly engaged to provide customers with the best user experience possible, often working in shifts 24/7. And they do know everything that’s going on on the customer side:

  • What are pain points
  • What could be improved in what way and
  • For what job the product or service in question was originally hired.

Just think Zappos: A whole company build around a self-organizing “customer care” culture. Participation in innovation is a huge motivation as it provides a purpose beyond just making a living—the one thing all knowledge workers are longing for.

The CxO Level

Change and innovation are often also appreciated at the CxO level. Change is either understood as a necessity to stay in business, thus preserving rank & privileges. Or it is seen as a worthwhile experiment, that needs to be undertaken anyway to preserve an innovative image. In both ways, change is supporting a personal agenda.

The Middle Management

Now, if the top and the bottom of an organization are often innovation-minded, how come that so many organizations simple fail to focus on constantly delivering more value to their customers?

The problem is usually the middle management. And there are a lot reasons for that:

  1. The middle management lives to please their superiors. Mostly in the hope to be promoted themselves, once the superiors are promoted.
  2. Thus, change is generally not serving their personal agendas.
  3. And this is particularly true for agile change, given the risk of failure. “Agile” is a perceived as a loss of control, threatening their career goals.
  4. Zappos and holacracy is actually the horror scenario for any middle manager: Being made obsolete by a self-organizing team. (Read tip: Here's what happened to Zappos' HR boss when the company got rid of managers and her job became obsolete.
  5. Therefore, being strong supporters of command & control structures, middle managers tend to treat today’s knowledge workers still like farmers’ sons from Iowa back in 1905, working at an assembly line for the first time.
  6. Which is the reason that we still have to cope with silo structures within companies and “us vs. them” thinking, resulting in local optimization efforts instead of corporate-wide collaboration.
  7. Moving from people management to service leadership–“it’s my job to make you successful”–is hence frightening them, as it requires a totally different mindset by comparison to usual command & control structures: EQ (and empathy)
  8. It also requires the ability to embrace failure as a natural component of the innovation progress (Thomas Edison: “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”)
  9. …as well as being able to let go and stopping micro-managing (George S. Patton: “Don't tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”)
  10. Agile change also collides with the western ideal of innovation based on the Steve Jobs model—Apple being regarded the most innovative company—: a single creative individual is pushing through disruptive technology. Process innovation, which is at the core of any agile and iterative innovation, is usually underestimated in that respect.
  11. Agile innovation also interferes with the typical “we know what we need to build for our customers” attitude of the middle management, as the good manager knows what to do and how to solve a problem. She is not “weak” by admitting she doesn’t know and has to observe/ask/include the customer in product discovery, improvement and delivery processes.


Introducing “agile” at process level in isolated areas, e.g. Scrum for software development, is not the real challenge. Creating a learning, self-organizing organization, that embraces failure, is.

As the middle management is the typical supporter of command & control structures, asking them to accept and support self-organizing teams is the single most failure-prone step in the transition process.

And “agile” will fail, if those command & control structures are preserved. It will also fail if product management is not empowered to do its job: creating products in an iterative, cross-functional and cross-departmental way to solve real customer problems. And that process includes the whole organization, regardless of previously established organizational silos.

And a good starting point for that transition is to consider customer care an integral part of this innovation process.

Hence my hypothesis: If customer care is regarded solely as a cost center that needs to be outsourced, agile change is unlikely to happen in that organization.

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