Five common practices of companies with strong customer service cultures
In this abridged extract from his latest book Ignore Your Customers (And They’ll Go Away), Micah Solomon explores how to establish and sustain a strong customer service culture.
Company culture is currently a smoking-hot topic of business discussion, dilating a lot of pupils and inducing a lot of heavy breathing in the boardroom.
The essence of a strong customer service culture is simpler and more straightforward than you might think. It is, in fact, relatively easy to understand and to get a start on implementing. It just takes the interest, a drive to succeed, and a little of what’s (ironically) called common sense.
Here are five steps to take toward establishing and sustaining a customer service culture:
- Define your purpose in a sentence or two.
- Set down a short list of principles that are fundamental to your desired culture.
- Express your cultural expectations at every possible junction, from recruitment onward.
- Maintain a repeating ritual for cultural reinforcement.
- Develop an obsession with talent management.
Define your purpose.
Write a sentence or two that defines the purpose of your business and describes the type of behaviours you’ll be expecting from every associate, manager, and executive in your organisation.
This statement of purpose should be:
- Written in clear language.
- Short enough to be memorable.
- Long enough to be meaningful.
One of the most powerful definitions of purpose that I know of is the one that guides the Mayo Clinic:
The needs of the patient come first.
Mayo’s statement is exceptionally brief, uses language that is easy to understand (the only word longer than one syllable is the central word, “patient”), and is clear in the expectations it lays out for everyone who works there.
Few definitions of purpose are quite as concise as this, but concision and precision are exactly what you should be aiming for.
It’s essential to avoid the kind of flowery, jargon-infested statement whose inevitable fate will be to languish, unremembered, in somebody’s desk drawer.
As you start to work on your organisation’s definition of purpose, it’s certainly fine to begin by writing down something that’s longer and more jargon-laden than you want to end up with. Just be sure to then whittle it down, taking out everything that is jargony, mealy-mouthed, or that you simply can’t make yourself believe. Once you’ve done this, you’ll have an expression of your culture’s core purpose, defined in appropriately muscular and memorable language.
Set down a short list of fundamental cultural principles, a sort of Constitution or Bill of Rights for what your culture will be.
I would suggest you limit yourself to no more than ten or twelve essential principles. Here are examples of what three such principles might look like:
- "We value every individual’s input and creativity. Everything we do here, from addressing defects to finding better ways to work, depends on employees’ sharp eyes, input, and creativity. Every one of us here is valued for more than our labor, for more than what it says in our job descriptions."
- "We respond both to the stated requests of our customers and to opportunities to serve them in ways they may not directly request. We can’t always count on the customer to know what to ask for, nor to know what we are able to offer them."
- "Service is the responsibility of everyone here. We seek out every opportunity to serve our customers and to improve their experiences, and we rise to the occasion to serve customers even when it pulls us away from our regularly assigned duties."
Passionately express your cultural expectations at every possible juncture from recruitment, hiring, and employee onboarding onward.
Let employees and potential employees know, from the first moment they come in contact with your organisation, what matters most in the culture you are striving to create.
This is essential, and is often overlooked: recruiting, hiring, and onboarding so often get bogged down in forms to fill out and other mundane details that the new or potential employee never hears - or at least doesn’t hear loud and clear - what the company they’re joining, or are on the brink of joining, is all about.
Introduce and diligently maintain a repeating ritual for cultural reinforcement.
Setting up the framework of a great service culture is only the start. Reinforcing it is what ultimately makes the difference. Your best hope for having your service culture persist over time is to find an opportunity to reinforce your cultural focus.
One powerful ritual that works in many types of organisations is what I call a daily Customer Service Minute. Some of my consulting clients call this their “huddle” or “lineup” , whatever you decide to call it, it will be a ritual that involves employees - ideally, all employees - who gather in small groups at the same time each day to kick off the workday, or shift, on the right note.
Each Customer Service Minute should be devoted to a single aspect of providing great service. This typically includes sharing examples that illustrate that single service principle as well as going over helpful techniques, pitfalls encountered, and challenges overcome.
I recommend that the Customer Service Minute be led by a different employee (not necessarily a manager, by the way) each day; if you take this approach, your employees, in rotation, will be learning and teaching at the same time, and you’ll avoid overburdening any manager or single team member.
Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company employees swear by the value of the pocket-sized accordion card of key principles and behavioural guidance that they keep on their person and can refer to in the course of their workday; Jason Bradshaw and team at Volkswagen Australia have had similar success keeping their dealers inspired through their brief, illustrated book, designed for internal use only: 100 Ways to WOW.
Develop an obsession with talent management.
Talent management is the term I use for the recruitment, selection, and development of employees. As much as anywhere, this is where culture lives or dies.
It’s essential that you implement a successful approach and mindset for finding, keeping, and developing employees who have an affinity for service: employees who are selected for their interest in and suitability for your company purpose and whom you support and guide in their further development.