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Is Your Corporate Office an “Ivory Tower”?

Is Your Corporate Office an “Ivory Tower”?

April 10, 2018

Your field employees probably call your headquarters the same name as the town where it’s located. For example, if your home office is in Chicago (or a suburb), branch and sales employees refer to it as “Chicago.”

Usually, this not used in a positive sense, e.g., “Chicago screwed up the commission report again,” or “Those guys in Chicago don’t know what it’s like in the field,” or (worst of all), “There’s no point in calling Chicago; those people never answer and they never call back.”

This can get pretty bad. Many years ago, I worked with a sales manager who had what was then a novelty: voice dialing capability on his “car phone” (this was one generation before “bag phones.”) Once when I was riding with him, he pressed the call button, said “Black Hole” and the phone dialed the operator (remember those?) of our home office.

As the ringing came over the speaker phone, I asked him why he chose that name and he said, “Because calls go in but they’re lost forever and they never come back.”

The call went to voice mail.

“See what I mean?” he asked as he disconnected.

I was a field manager then and that experience made a big impression on me. I vowed that if I ever got into a headquarters job, I would always prioritize calls from field associates.

Later, I became a corporate manager and eventually a VP for four large distribution companies. I discovered that headquarters employees often held the field associates in contempt in return. In many companies, these two groups seem to share a loathe/hate relationship.

Although some of this can be attributed to misaligned compensation systems, I believe most of the problem is due to poor communication and a different sense of urgency between the two groups. Field personnel are responding to customers; home office types are responding to field personnel. The HQ people don’t feel the same obligation to answer the phone when the caller is “just” another employee.

It makes a big difference if your company gets answers for customers faster than your competitors. For some reason, most headquarters types don’t understand this and have a very casual approach to answering the phone or returning calls. It’s as if that extreme desire to get answers for customers quickly – which exists in most field organizations – dies when it gets past the walls of the home office, making it seem like a Fortress of Indifference to your sales and branch people.

To combat this, I required the people in my departments to answer calls from field personnel no matter what – even if they had to interrupt a meeting to do so. I was reinforcing this policy at an all-hands meeting once and my phone rang. It was an account manager and I got to demonstrate this behavior in front of everyone. My remarkable executive assistant even managed to load nearly all of our field associates’ contact information into my cell phone, so I knew for sure when it was one of them who was calling.

Later, I was presenting to several dozen account managers and, as I explained that my department always answered field calls, one of them surreptitiously dialed my phone while I was speaking. I pulled it out of my pocket, greeted him by his name and everyone laughed as he and I talked on the phone while looking at each other in the meeting room. I wish I had been smart enough to plan that, because it made marketing’s service promise very memorable.

If you’re a headquarters employee and you have a low regard for your field personnel, then you probably have spent very little time serving customers. You can’t imagine what it’s like to face a customer in an emergency, or one who is angry due to some service problem. You also cannot imagine the frustration in not being able to get an answer from the corporate office when these situations arise.

Also, while you see reports on the performance of field employees for everything from sales to margins to returns, field employees don’t see reports on your performance at all. What if they could? What if one of those reports showed the whole company how frequently you answered and returned field phone calls?

Field employees are acting on behalf of customers. Yes, they will sometimes do dumb things and make unreasonable demands. But much of what looks like irrational behavior would make sense to you if you were in their shoes. The bottom line is that they are representing your customers and handling your revenues. They deserve not only respect but also the same level of responsiveness they provide your customers.

Every headquarters employee needs to spend a substantial amount of time in the field. Once you understand what it’s like to be responsible for getting answers for customers, your attitude about field associates will probably change for the better.

So, answer your phone when someone from the field calls. Share their urgency about getting answers for customers; in fact, treat them like internal customers. Get rid of the ivory tower mentality and make your home office a real asset for your field and for your customers, too.

© 2019 Gale Media, Inc.

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