• Stephanie Thum, CCXP

3 Ways to Avoid Operational Meltdowns with Your Virtual Team

This blog post is sponsored by Mitel.



Rob Sher knows how to strike at the heart of almost every entrepreneur I have ever known.


In his book Mighty Midsized Companies, Rob writes about the calamity of the dreaded “operational meltdown.”

“There often comes a point in the life of a midsized business when it goes from happily hectic and busy to unhappily overwhelmed and chaotic. That’s when the wheels come off the bus. That’s when employees start quitting without giving notice; customers begin complaining about poor service; and vendors, tired of waiting to get paid, stop shipping product.”

Today, as leaders, employees, and customers become more physically distant from one another, and unable to be co-present with each other every day, it can be exceedingly difficult to see those operational meltdowns coming.


Avoiding them in the current business environment means you might have to check and refine some aspects of your leadership style.


Here are three ideas based on my research and experience that can help to minimize operational meltdowns and keep virtual teams feeling supported, focused on customer expectations, and ready to accelerate revenue.


1. Co-diagnose customer problems with employees.


A big mistake I see leaders make is they assume they just know what customers’ problems are without seeing the story through employees’ eyes. Leaders must reach out and listen to their virtual teams to stay ahead of customer problems.


In a past life, I worked with a leader who had big goals for the organization’s customer experience work. “Reduce the red tape for our customers!” was a favorite phrase. He wanted to see the organization eliminate redundant paperwork, rules, policies, and administrative delays that upset customers and employees.


Once a month, he invited a different group of employees to have coffee in his executive suite. He chose to meet with people who had great attitudes. As part of those meetings, he asked people where the organization could reduce that red tape and be more mindful operationally.


The idea was to avoid operational meltdowns and diagnose customer problems with employees before there were meltdowns.


You could consider a similar approach with a virtual twist.


Think about an "always-on" feedback mechanism—like a virtual suggestion box that is always available to employees. Use collaborative tools that make it easy to meet, co-diagnose problems, and then delegate follow-up activities to address those problems before they become operational meltdowns.


2. Include customers in the business.


I am talking about inviting actual customers to be part of your company’s internal business development activities.

Some time ago while working in business development for a B2B firm, I brought the CEO of one of the firm’s biggest accounts into an annual revenue planning meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to brainstorm ways to grow our work together.

Up until then, it was unheard of at the firm to include actual clients in planning discussions. That made no sense to me. If you’re planning in a mindful way, why wouldn’t you want to make sure you’re on the right track in the client’s eyes?

In the planning meeting, the client CEO relished talking about his company straight to our people. He pointed out potential pitfalls and competitor strengths. By the close of business, we knew what we had to do to marginalize our competitors and accelerate our business.

Think about bringing customers directly into your virtual team’s business conversations. Ask them to be on advisory boards, to speak at a virtual town hall, or to employees as part of a special event.


3. Be direct and descriptive about performance with your virtual team.


Accelerating revenue with a virtual team means acquiring the collaborative tools you need. You also need to get a communication cadence down pat. You need to include customers in your planning work.


Even with all of that, though, you still need more.

Straight up, my friends: You must talk about business performance with your virtual team. You must be direct.

Team members' perceptions of their performance should match business reality. As a team leader, it’s up to you to communicate reality in simple, plain language.


A recent study found that virtual teams’ perceptions of their performance versus their actual performance were prone to misalign, even when leaders were great communicators who knew how to use their tools.


The missing link? Honest, simple, straightforward communication directly to the team about their performance.


Tie It All Together with Authenticity


Every leader manages or will manage operational meltdowns in their career. That is just part of the job of a leader. Frequent communication, collaborative tools, and a steadfast, open partnership between you, your employees, and your customers are necessary to avoid and minimize meltdowns.


It is more challenging with virtual teams because leaders don’t have the benefit of sensing first-hand team member attitudes, engagement, or red flags. On the same token, virtual team members don’t have the benefit of picking up on your signals as a leader first-hand.


Co-diagnosing customer problems, working directly with customers on business planning, and being direct with your virtual teams about their performance should be part of your plan. The onus is on leaders to tie it all together to avoid meltdowns.


I highly recommend Rob Sher’s book as a resource for leaders of midsized companies. Check it out for more ideas on how to spot operational meltdowns, build your company’s resilience, and grow through, not just go through the inevitable meltdown.


Get more inspirational communication, customer experience, and leadership tips in Mitel's new Now of Work eBook.


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