“The best offense is a good defense, but a bad defense is offensive.”
—Gene Wolfe, American Science Fiction Writer
“The best defense is a good offense” is an idiom that has been applied to many fields of endeavor, including games and military combat. It is also known as the strategic offensive principle of war. Generally, the idea is that proactivity (a strong offensive action) instead of a passive attitude will preoccupy the opposition and ultimately hinder its ability to mount an opposing counterattack, leading to a strategic advantage.
The basic functions of football provide a reasonable context for evaluating the inner workings of your Contact Center. To effectively apply these functions, we must understand what they are. The offense team is charged with carrying the ball down the field to score. Defense attempts to prevent offense from accomplishing that task. In business, the offense promotes change and new ideas or initiatives; defense puts forth obstacles that prevent progress, pause projects, and/or discredit change initiatives.
For the purposes of this article, I propose that we think of the ball as the Customer Experience, offense as change, and defense as status quo. The game also comes with special teams, managers, coaches, trainers, and owners; this is a structure replicated in most businesses. When it comes to Contact Centers, consider evaluating your operation in these terms. It can be a fun analogy!
First, ask yourself these questions. Does our operation play better offense or defense? Are we innovators? Are we willing to challenge our own belief systems and search for new, creative tools and techniques to improve on fulfilling the Customer Experience promise? My experience in this industry is that the answer is NO. In far too many cases, defense has crippled offense.
Unlike football, the roles of offense and defense in business are adopted rather than assigned. Often the position is grown into. Offense is grounded in growth and optimism. It is largely led by those who are willing to challenge the status quo and learn new ways of doing things. Defense is often driven by more pessimistic habits … comfort in current state, fear of change, burnout, turf battles, and a slew of other dynamics that undermine genuine offensive inclinations. The roles are typically evolutionary, with offensive thinking often positioned as revolutionary.
Defense has a detectable language. “That will never work here,” “We tried that already,” “We can’t,” “Our people won’t,” “THEY (whoever they are) will never allow it,” “We’ve always managed just fine,” etc., etc. Defensive arguments use words like always, never, can’t, and won’t. This is the language of pessimists. Rather than engage in discussions of pros and cons, benefits and trade-offs, these folks throw down the gauntlet of “opinion.” They consistently choose opinion over expertise and stand by their defensive position no matter what it takes.
A strong defense translates to those folks that often play “devil’s advocate.” While insights are welcome, this positioning rarely reflects curiosity. The “devil’s advocate” rolls in the obstacles to create fear, uncertainty, and doubt; this protects their comfort zone. The result is stalled initiatives. If you look closely at a stalled project, you will notice indicators of defensive positions within the Contact Center as well as cross-functionally. For example, take the Contact Center that is pummeled by marketing and promotional campaigns that it was not privy to prior to launch. The responsible party (Marketing, etc.) justifies not informing the Contact Center because of “security” or some other lame reason. This represents cross-functional defense!
The Contact Center must then act offensively. The planning process must engage cross-functional partners in quarterly (or some reasonable interval) meetings to understand and document planned activities and what the Contact Center needs to handle any new demand. Offense is a proactive practice. Management must analyze the cost of a poor response to a campaign or promotion when there is no notification and no time to plan, staff, or train for an effective response. The cost here is more than lost or mishandled customer contacts. Agents become frustrated when asked to handle demand for which they have not been trained.
Defense is dangerous when it is quietly adopted as the means by which to lead. If an environment is detected as having too much defense and not enough offense, leadership needs to take a step back and indict themselves. Leaders set the course, morale, optimism, and culture … these are reflections of leadership.
Defense often manifests as silence, as in not speaking up and not showing up. When conditions within any business unit are flawed and recommendations for change are made, there is a problem if your first response is to argue against it INSIDE YOUR OWN HEAD. Far too many staff hide their true feelings about situations, conditions, or initiatives from everyone but their “posse.” These folks have “water cooler” conversations where all the doubt is safe to disclose. There is also another aspect to this dynamic. It is manifested by silent adversaries that ignore meetings and abandon project milestones, deadlines, and tasks related to the initiative with which they disagree. In addition to pessimism, we detect passive aggressive behavior which is very unpleasant to experience.
Taking on the offensive position includes being open, curious, proactive, and optimistic. Leadership’s offensive adoption provides forums for ongoing evaluation, education, growth, and action. The offense is constantly learning new, more creative “plays” to challenge the status quo. They determine regularly the best and most effective methodology to deliver on the Customer Experience. This means that offensive players read industry information, feed their professional curiosity, inspire others to contribute, and appreciate individual contributors for what they have to offer.
Offense craves innovation and always asks questions. How can we make things better? What are we learning about our customers’ needs and preferences? What new or existing technology do we need to know more about? The leader is the quarterback whose job it is to set the standards of behavior for the team. If there is no quarterback, and just a lot of defensive linemen, the ball will not move. Defense will win the day and the Customer Experience, company revenue, and brand will be sacrificed in favor of the defense’s protection of the status quo.
If indeed the best defense is a good offense, Contact Center leaders must hone their own skills while simultaneously developing those skills in others. Challenge defensive postures and positions at every level. Satisfy your curiosity about initiatives, particularly ones that affect people’s roles, responsibilities, location, or activity. Be as transparent as possible in any effort that includes changes, large or small. Engage and listen; ask open-ended questions to draw the defense out and understand the depth of their concerns. You cannot change someone’s point of view until you understand it. Remember that defense comes from all corners … the Contact Center, cross-functional partners, and executives.
Be consistent with all players and enjoy the benefits of a strong offensive position!