Outstanding Customer Service Cultures
Company culture is a hot topic of business discussion, dilating a lot of pupils and inducing heavy breathing in the board room. At the same time, I’ve also noticed a distorted mashup of what people think this culture is – from road bikes adorning a wall to illustrate a “commitment to work-balance” to beer taps in the boardroom to ensure a happy (or intoxicated?) staff.
I blame many of these dubious ideas on the many stories about flashy cultural elements that are, in my opinion, coincidental to a company’s greatness.
As someone who has spent their career going inside organizations that do customer service extremely well – from Nordstrom, USAA, Southwest Airlines, Zappos, L.L. Bean, Mayo Clinic, MOD Pizza and Bob’s Red Mill to the layer of B2B companies whose names are lesser known but equally great – I can assure you that flashy perks have little to do with performance.
Instead, I’ve discovered that every company’s culture is, on the surface, quite distinct. For example, an employee who spends her early career in the straitlaced but excellent Member Support environment of USAA in San Antonio and then moves to Vegas to join the wild-and-woolly world of the Customer Loyalty Team at Zappos is definitely going to need an adjustment period before she feels at home. Yet, just below the surface distinctions, there is common ground – a set of elements that the stand outs have mastered. They are:
Culturally consistent employee selection (hiring) practices.
Sustaining a great customer service culture is much more possible if employees have a natural predisposition to serve. While there’s no complete guarantee that every employee will fulfill their potential and advance the company culture, great companies understand that giving specific traits greater weight than experience and even skills when making hiring decisions is the right place to start.
A commitment to ongoing improvement via customer service training and retraining, from orientation (onboarding) onward.
Training can take many shapes, from the initial inspiration and guidance that new employees receive at the time of orientation, to the Customer Service Minute, to more elaborate training sessions, workshops, and all-hands keynotes with a customer service theme. All of these are ways that great customer service cultures are maintained. Further, it ensures that they continue to grow. Service greatness should never be left to happenstance or it is at risk of hitting a plateau or diminishing over time from inertia and entropy.
A culture of empowering every employee to take the initiative in service of their customers.
Once employees are properly selected, oriented, and trained, they require empowerment to flourish. All of these primed-to-be-great employees can’t do their best work, or contribute to the greatness of a service culture, until they’re given the power and leeway to do so. And all great customer service cultures do give employees such power and leeway. An employee in great service culture such as predominates at Nordstrom or Zappos or the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company is expected to take positive, creative action on behalf of others.
Employee control over how they carry out their duties.
In a great company culture, not only are employees empowered to assist customers in proactive (and, at times, inconvenient or expensive) ways, they also have a level of creative control over how they carry out their day-to-day duties. Great companies provide comprehensive guidance and training, but they don’t excessively script or regiment employees in how to carry out their interactions with customers. Employees are not, in other words, just interchangeable cogs, nor are they serfs to be exploited solely for their labor. They are fully dimensional human beings who are both expected to and supported in making full and unique contributions.
A common language.
At Zappos, employees refer to themselves as Zapponians; their lobby gift shop is the Z’Boutique, the contact center is called the Customer Loyalty Team, and so forth. Southwest Airlines creatively spells words such as “luv” in its mission statement and internal documents. This kind of common language, though it may seem goofy to outsiders, is useful in bringing a company together and making everyone who works at a company feel like they’re part of the “in crowd.” (Be careful here: internal jargon shouldn’t be allowed to slip into conversation or correspondence with customers, as it will likely confuse them or make them feel like outsiders.)
Tales of over-the-top customer service are valuable in making a point to prospective, incoming, and even long-tenured employees about what an organization’s culture consists of and what it places a value on. Southwest Airlines has many such stories, often about assisting passengers in distress; similarly, USAA Insurance has many inspiring tales that get told internally, often stemming from work they’ve done for their members in flood recovery and other disaster assistance. Each such story serves the same purpose: to show what is valued in the company’s culture and the lengths to which employees should be willing to go in terms of investing empathy, resources, and creativity.
No “not my job.”
There’s an understanding within great company cultures that every employee will pitch in wherever needed, regardless of an employee’s particular job description and level in the organization. This can manifest itself daily, as it does at Disney parks, where employees (“cast members”) from each and every level of the organization can be found interrupting whatever else they may be doing to pick up stray trash wherever they encounter it. This pitching in outside of an employee’s daily functions can come up primarily on special occasions, the days or peak hours when help is needed to handle additional volume. For example, during the holiday rush, every Zappos employee, including CEO Tony Hsieh and other members of the executive team, spends time working the phone lines shoulder-to-shoulder with the regular call center employees. At the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, when there’s a time-sensitive need to convert a meeting room setup into a banquet room arrangement or vice versa, it’s “all hands-on deck” until accomplished.
At Southwest Airlines, often rated tops within aviation for customer service, employee pride is palpable. I experienced it personally when I told a flight attendant what I do for a living. She asked for my address and mailed me her own copy of Nuts!, a classic book about Southwest. Inside, scribbled throughout the book, were forty or so of her own notes, comments like “So true! We really do try to do this for our passengers,” and “Yes! This is exactly how we aim to treat each other!” and “This is what makes working here amazing!” Again: This wasn’t Southwest’s public relations team trying to curry favor, but rather a flight attendant promoting her own company on her own initiative, and at her own expense.
The same companies that exhibit such pride are also, paradoxically, humble in ways that keep an organization both solidly rooted and open to learning and growth. Case in point: People from a variety of levels of the Nordstrom organization have posted comments and written to me in response to my articles covering Nordstrom’s customer service prowess. What’s notable to me about these comments is how uniformly they include an element of humility and eagerness to improve, rather than patting themselves on the back for the positive coverage I’ve provided in the published piece. These responses fall essentially along the lines of, “Thanks for the recognition in your article. We’re just striving to provide the best service we can and to improve every day.”
Support for customer-focused innovation.
A great customer service culture can’t be static. Happily, employees within a positive culture, simply due to their pro-customer inclinations, will find multiple areas for improvement, each shift they work, each day. While this, of course, is a great start, it’s ultimately not enough. Customer-focused innovation thrives when a progressive attitude is supported by processes and systems to harvest employee ideas and bring them to fruition.
Having a truly great customer service culture doesn’t just happen and it can’t be delivered in a flashy decorating move or as a dry mission statement that no one actually reads. Rather, it requires an orchestrated effort and a deep commitment to improve.
Pull down that road bike, turn off the beer taps, roll up your sleeves and get started.
Adapted from Ignore Your Customers (And They’ll Go Away) by Micah Solomon. Copyright © 2020 by Micah Solomon. Used by permission of HarperCollins Leadership. www.harpercollinsleadership.com.