Get expert advice on every topic you need as a small business owner, from the ideation stage to your eventual exit. Our articles, quick tips, infographics and how-to guides can offer entrepreneurs the most up-to-date information they need to flourish.

Subscribe to our blog

Could your business suffer from “organizational indifference”?

Posted by Neha De

June 17, 2022

Most business owners assume that what they are experiencing in their business operations is the customer service metric they need to track.

according to research by Jonathan Byrnes, senior lecturer at MIT and founder and chairman of Profit Isle, and John Wass, CEO of Profit Isle, “The customer service measures that really count are those that reflect what the customer is actually experiencing."

What's more, customers’ perceptions are shaped the most by bad experiences, so just one poor interaction tends to be the most memorable.

How Byrnes and Wass exposed "organizational indifference"

To arrive at their findings, the researchers conducted a workshop on customer service for executives, which they kicked off by asking: “What is customer service?” 

The executives gave a variety of expected responses, such as fast order cycles, no phone tag, answering calls quickly and the like. The common thread linking the executives' responses? They were all tactical operating measures; more specifically, they were internal metrics. 

The researchers then asked: “What could your competitor do that would be your worst nightmare?” 

This question moved the discussion in a different direction. The responses came in varied form and content, but with the same underlying message:

"If my competitor could coordinate internally to really improve my customers’ profitability, business processes, and strategic positioning, I would be in deep trouble. My customers would abandon our relationship and run to the competition without looking back."

In other words, improving a customer’s profitability, business processes and strategic positioning was the most important strategic customer service breakthrough of all. 

Finally, the executives were asked: “If this is the ultimate win strategy, and we now know the secret to competitive success, why don’t we do it first? It seems we have a golden opportunity to secure our best customers and take away our competitors’ prime business.”

Most people in the group believed that that was simply not possible, mostly because “getting their functional departments to coordinate around innovative strategic customer service initiatives” was a challenge. 

While tactical customer service measures are typically managed by a single department, strategic customer service innovations require the coordinated efforts of multiple departments. This is what prompted Byrnes and Wass to come up with the term “organizational indifference.” 

Piercing organizational walls

Organizational indifference does not come from a lack of cooperation; instead, it happens when managers in other departments focus on the measures their leaders have told them are most crucial, and for which they are being held responsible. 

To break through this organizational wall and create truly effective strategic customer service innovations, business leaders need to roll out testbed projects, by offering limited opportunities to experiment and discovering potential breakthrough innovations.

Talk to us about how our back-office services help businesses run more smoothly.

Driving change by rolling out testbed projects

All organizations suffer from two issues: conceptualizing strategic customer service innovations and overcoming organizational indifference. Most are unable to act decisively, and end up putting themselves in danger of being overtaken by more capable, better-coordinated competitors.

This is how health care company Baxter overcame organizational indifference. About 30 years ago, Baxter’s Canadian subsidiary collaborated with a small hospital customer to explore how to come up with innovations that would benefit both parties. Baxter chose a situation wherein the conditions for innovation were ideal. It chose a relatively small community hospital that was newly built. It had a new staff and the need to develop new processes, and the young CEO was eager to create innovations that would change the industry.

The two parties set up a joint team to explore fresh ways to work together. They came up with several crucial supply-chain innovations, including the first working model of vendor-managed inventory, which is now a standard in the field.

This process had two critical outcomes:

1. Since the hospital was a relatively small customer, Baxter got a low-risk way to conceive a new mode of doing business. And because the hospital was new, Baxter was able to perfect the processes in a live situation.

2. Baxter’s managers were able to participate in the development of the testbed and see it in practice. They could talk to the doctors, nurses and staff to get a sense of how things were going, which in turn allowed them to offer suggestions to the joint team on how to improve the process.

Developing breakthrough strategic customer service

Byrnes and Wass recommend a three-point plan that “innovative management teams can use to develop strategic customer service testbed projects that will enable them to learn by doing and overcome organizational indifference.”

Select your opportunity meticulously – Testbed projects do not usually cost a lot, and the results can be transformative. However, it’s important to be careful when choosing testbed customers. 

Baxter chose a situation in which the conditions for an exploratory testbed project were ideal. The sales team avoided approaching the company's premier clients, which would have raised a red flag for them.

Make changes on-the-go

– Often, the most important findings surface only after a testbed project develops over time — could be a year or more. According to Byrnes and Wass, “the second and third-order changes are the most powerful because they’re reflective of customers’ real-time experiences and feedback.” 

The Baxter testbed project went through several iterations as the team worked with the hospital staff members and incorporated their newly discovered needs and concerns. The key to success is to learn from experience and evolve rapidly. 

Involve your counterparts early

– Strategic customer service innovation is a company-wide issue. Therefore, getting all functional counterparts from other departments involved right from the start is important. Allowing them to help shape the project and discovering how it will directly benefit them can go a long way. 

Baxter’s supply chain vice president wanted to try out a new, automated picking system. He was able to incorporate it into the testbed project to show the system’s viability and favorable economics. In fact, when the sales team realized that revenues rose by over 35% in this highly penetrated customer, they became avid champions. 

Following the successful implementation of the resulting innovation, top management can commit to it and change the functional departments' planning, resource allocation and compensation systems to enable the department to thrive and grow.


Strategic customer service breakthroughs allow businesses to powerfully impact their customers’ profitability, business process effectiveness and strategic positioning — the ultimate winning customer service strategy. The most successful managers come up with a comprehensive customer service program that drives innovations built on effective, day-to-day, tactical customer service excellence.

Want more?

Escalon's outsourced business services, such as HR, accounting, CFO services and more, bring back professionalism in the workplace. Talk to an expert today.


Neha De
Neha De

Neha De is a writer and editor with more than 13 years of experience. She has worked on a variety of genres and platforms, including books, magazine articles, blog posts and website copy. She is passionate about producing clear and concise content that is engaging and informative. In her spare time, Neha enjoys dancing, running and spending time with her family.

We provide you with essential business services so you can focus on growth.