Finance: Closing to Serve You Better … in Nine Simple Steps


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The following slide presentation details one finance squadron’s self-touted effort to better serve customers by essentially shutting down all face-to-face contact. The impulse to do so is understandable given the endemic task saturation faced by finance shops, together with gutted manning and diminished experience levels. But being understandable doesn’t make it right or justified. Initiatives like this destroy teamwork, gnaw at the fabric of supported-supporting relationships, foster increased rates of mistake and miscalculation in financial transactions, and mask the severity of the resource-mission mismatch in the finance career field by engineering less painful ways to create the appearance of successfully tackling unreasonable workloads. 

Most critically, things like this are a fundamental abdication of duty. Finance exists to be there for airmen to ensure they are paid on time and correctly. The idea of “being there by not being there” is absurd. It generates nothing but resentment and contempt from airmen and should not be countenanced by any responsible leader in a blue uniform.

Nonetheless, it happened at Wright-Patterson. Here’s how they pulled it off, and how you can, too.

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Note: minor edit to this slide to remove CPTS/CC's actual name.
Note: minor edit to this slide removed CPTS/CC’s actual name.

Step 1: Slap a cool-sounding slogan on your cover slide. Something bumper stickerish and compulsively repeatable by senior officers, propagandists, and dolls with pullable strings. Sheath your snappy quip in a delicately woven contradiction by representing it to be about helping customers, even if your intent is to keep them at standoff and eventually ignore them altogether.

Remember, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. Your task is to persuade everyone (or at least those with the remaining gumption to care) that your elaborate ruse to shut customers out doesn’t exist – that it’s actually a delivery model.

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Step 2: Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Essential: include the word “transformation” or a variant. The whole point here is to show how you’re changing something for the better. Being able to say so, preferably with an accompanying claim of reduced manpower and/or pocketed productivity, is the key to getting promoted out of this deal.

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Step 3: Frame the issue in a way that makes it sound just bad enough to justify your proposal, but not so bad that you could be construed as incompetent. For example, admit there has been a problem with duplication of effort and customer dissatisfaction, but rather than concede such problems trace back to internal miscommunication and process management, place the burden on the customer’s incessant desire to interact directly with your office.

Don’t miss a chance to weave in irrelevant but comforting externalities that, in unsubstantiated form, do a nice job of inflating the importance of your project. In this case, citing the travel time to reach the finance office creates a handy mental hook upon which you can hang made-up numbers. Anything easily quantifiable will be bear hugged by senior leaders. They need numerical feathers to line their promotion nests.

Also, be sure to portray your greatest failure – in this case a 10% rejection rate for travel documents – as the customer’s fault, and its recurrence a fait accompli if your proposal isn’t adopted post haste.

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Step 4: Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, a well-crafted graphic can sustain a thousand misrepresentations. In this case, you’re simply trying to show that pesky customers, with their annoying habit of leveraging modern communication methods in the ways most convenient given their mission-driven schedules and support demands, are clearly committed to harassing and haggling what may as well be a sole, hapless technician with an outdated laptop.

The message here is that customers are a pain in the neck, with their endless expectations of minimal service. If we can’t control them, we have no chance of taking huge breaks in the middle of the day for cake parties, much less chopping manpower as a show of institutional fealty and promotability. After all, as the notes to this slide attest:

“A very common trend among customers is that they will use several avenues to fix a single issue. For each avenue, a new technician starts to correct the problem. The existence of these multiple avenues causes both waste and abuse of the system.“

It’s almost as if customers expect technicians to communicate with one another or to make centrally coordinated and commonly viewable records of ongoing transactions. While that may work for cutting edge firms like McDonald’s, it’s ludicrous to expect this from the world’s most technologically advanced and innovative Air Force. We’re not putting pickles on cheeseburgers here.

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Step 5: Now that you’ve spent considerable effort erecting the scaffolding that will be used to paint your argument, the actual objectives are a mere formality. When you state them, go light on specifics and heavy on euphemisms. Avoid explicitly stating the real purpose, which is disencumbering from the weighty yoke of bothersome customers. No one needs to see that until the scaffolding is taken down and the final product revealed. Focus instead on how your plan will make the chain of command look good in the shower. Streamlining, swiftness, focus, … you get the drift. Remember, none of this stuff has to be true. Just believable.

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Step 6: As a prototypical Air Force leader, you’ve been conditioned to never deliver a briefing without a propaganda plan. Remember, as depicted here, understanding the actual problem or those impacted is perfunctory. The main action in anything these days is in the official legitimation, preferably predicated upon findings of a process improvement exercise — or at least something clothed in its lexicon.

Plan to get the word out, but not until after you’ve made final decisions and sealed off any potential avenues for feedback or criticism of your proposal. If you allow customers – or heaven forbid, their commanders – to comment on your idea, they will almost certainly complicate it with facts and logic. You cannot allow that, and there’s no defense against it like a good propaganda offense.

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Step 7: Circle back to your previous references, fusing together your cool slogan and your reference to something transformative. Nothing else you say matters once you’ve combined these two notions. It’s like “crossing the streams” and unleashing ancient spirits to roam the physical Earth. The resulting hypnotic bedlam will leave audiences so drunk on corporate jargon they won’t know the difference between resiliency and wingmanship.

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Step 8: Trying to pull this off without a cool process graphic that overstates your new capability is like trying to be an Afghan farmer without growing opium. Sure, you can take the high road, but why settle for a stubborn goat as your sole live-in companion? In this gambit, the customers are the stubborn goats, and it’s time to rid the lobby of their insufferable bleating.

Remember also to continue portraying the customer unfavorably, even in your new process model … seeking control over your work activities throughout their life cycle.

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Step 9: Dazzle the audience with data. Remember that none of this needs to mean anything or suffer under the burden of context. The numbers are there for one reason: to give the general something to stare at while you melt his brain with jargon-laden yammering.

A common pitfall with the last slide is to ask the audience if there are any questions. Never, ever do that. Remember, you’re against questions. Your whole point with this slideshow, the man-hours expended to craft it, and the time, effort, and focus devoted to gathering the “data” upon which it relies is that you are fanatically opposed to people obliging you to answer their questions.

The problem with questions is that they lead to answers, and answers lead to the truth, and customers can’t handle the truth

But if questions can’t be avoided, at least handle them using a faceless process that gives the option of delaying or refusing to respond until you successfully wait out a customer compelling elective diversion of their incessant cravings. Customer service practices at huge corporations have long followed this practice, and it’s time we assimilate.

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The paradoxical illogic of “closing to serve you better” has become a caricature among street-level airmen. It engenders scorn among people who should be working together. Unfortunately, senior officials intend to deepen the pathology rather than heal it. They’ve bought into contemporary management fads that cherish inexpensive off-the-shelf software as a proxy for human interaction.

Never mind that they’re stockpiling Fool’s Gold, that military success is founded on collective human performance, that such “solutions” have consistently failed and degraded the Air Force mission, or that actually listening to airmen during a never-ending flurry of baby-kissing base visits would reveal the truth of the problem … and how it’s worsening with each successive step away from a legacy model built around analog interactions.

When it comes to the financial support enterprise, officials are only interested in hearing how more cuts can be implemented. Cuts, after all, are the flavor of the political season, and the meal ticket for corporatists and pragmatists masquerading as public servant leaders.

Efforts like this one dovetail with a quietly but deliberately orchestrated headquarters initiative that continues to unfold. An agenda-shaped manpower “study” recently conducted at eleven carefully selected bases reportedly concluded that a further 25 percent reduction in manning would be advisable based on observed workload. Not included in that workload: additional duties, new mission requirements added since the last manpower review, or the informal but critical obligation of financiers to work with commanders on non-routine issues driven by a strenuous operational tempo.

This slide, excerpted from a SAF/FM presentation given in February, details manpower calculations justifying a sharp reduction in manning at observed finance offices. This despite complaints from comptrollers that they are short-handed, and over the objections of customers who already can't get solid support. Not only are officials failing to grasp the finance problems plaguing airmen, they appear poised to make those problems worse.
This slide, excerpted from a SAF/FM presentation given in February, details manpower calculations justifying a sharp reduction in financial management manning at observed offices. This despite complaints from comptrollers that they are short-handed as customers lament long delays, poor communication, and anemic support. Not only are officials failing to grasp the finance problems plaguing the mission, they appear poised to make those problems worse.

The writing is on the wall, scribbled in green crayon. Unless senior officials dig into this issue earnestly, expect more “closures to serve you better” in the not distant future.


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