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Culture book

What is a culture book and how do you create one?

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Pioneered at Zappos by the late ‘king of customer service’ Tony Hsieh, a culture book offers a unique way for customer experience and service leaders to play a pivotal, central role in delivering cultural change in an organisation.

9th Aug 2021
Editor MyCustomer
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In the immortalised decree of the late Tony Hsieh, CEO and founder of Zappos:

“What’s the best way to build a brand for the long term? In a word: Culture.”

Hsieh was so adamant that company culture was fundamental to Zappos’ success that he wrote the book on it. And whilst 2010’s Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Pride was, and remains, an international favourite in the business section of many bookshops around the world, it was arguably the lesser-distributed but equally-celebrated Zappos Culture Book that proved to be an even more fitting legacy to Hsieh’s commitment to crafting the perfect company culture.  

What is a culture book?

Primarily regarded as an initiative for HR leaders to implement in business to encourage employee engagement, a culture book is a tangible, ongoing, curated manual that outlines a company’s values, its story and its commitment to creating a positive company culture.  

As cofounder & CEO of Perkbox, Saurav Chopra explains, “The aim of a culture book is to provide a glimpse of a company’s culture as it grows. It’s a way of preserving and reminding employees about it, whilst onboarding new ones and exciting them about the “culture experience” they’re about to encounter.”

A culture book can also provide a great taste of what a company’s day-to-day dynamics look like.

Crucially, as is the case with companies such as Zappos, a culture book can be curated by employees across an organisation, allowing more than just senior executives or HR leaders to be involved in identifying and solidify the values that make that company unique and give its staff purpose.

Many big businesses have followed the Zappos lead or a variant of it. Netflix famously publicly shared its ‘culture deck’ in 2009. It’s a 125-slide presentation that’s seen as a seminal forerunner of codified values. “We’re a team, not a family,” the deck proclaims.

“The aim of a culture book is to engage employees from the word ‘go’,” says Tassic’s Holly Bacon, in an article about bringing company culture to life.

“Where an employee handbook would give a prescriptive explanation of what to do in any situation, a culture book acts as a guide on the company’s ethos and how things are usually done. It signposts the company’s approach without being prescriptive. Culture is communicated in the tone and content of the whole document, rather than being a defined set of values sitting in a particular page.”

Why customer experience leaders?

Simply put, company culture is a CX professional’s business. As a renowned and well-referenced Grant Thornton and Oxford Economics report from 2019 explains, organisations with ‘healthy’ customer-led cultures are 1.5 times more likely to report average revenue growth of more than 15%. There are also countless studies about the benefits to employees of having an organisational culture that’s customer-led.

If the mandate is to have a customer-led culture, then CX professionals must be the chief enabler in making that happen, and working to help engage fellow employees to do so.

“For years, customer experience thought leaders have stressed the impact of the employee experience on customer experience,” explains David Robbins, the VP of client consulting at customer-centricity strategists, Gongos.

“In the absence of a highly engaged frontline, it stands to reason that the customer experience would and does often suffer. Yet despite the obvious importance of this relationship, most companies still manage these aspects of their business in silos.

“Employee culture and experience means working within your capacity to embed a culture of customer centricity and empowerment across all levels of the organisation. Accomplishing this is no easy task. It calls on customer experience professionals to take on the role of chief customer advocate. This involves extending influence beyond specific functions and line-of-site priorities. Ask yourself: What are the most effective ways for connecting the customer voice to executive-led strategies and priorities, regardless of where they fall in our company’s operating model?”

For years, customer experience thought leaders have stressed the impact of the employee experience on customer experience

As Gerry Brown, founder of The Customer Lifeguard explains, achieving this mandate means ensuring customer-centricity resonating throughout an organisation, and a culture book can aid that goal.

“While the decision to create an uncompromising customer-centric culture often comes, or is influenced from the top, everyone can and should play a role in consistently delivering the company’s customer service culture.

“In the case of Zappos (an online retailer who has taken customer experience to new levels) it wasn’t just Tony Hsieh, the CEO, and his senior team; all of the employees have always had a strong voice, and are directly responsible for designing the core values on which their service culture is built. Their yearly culture book is a consistent and evolving testament to the strength and durability of this approach.”

How to create a culture book  

The key to creating a culture book is defining its purpose. As Perkbox’s, Saurav Chopra explains, this could be as simple as trying to instil the values of your company to new starters in the onboarding process, by way of being a tangible document for them to read, or as is the case if led by customer experience leaders, it can be about displaying how a company is the sum of all its parts.

“A culture book can also provide a great taste of what a company’s day-to-day dynamics look like. If you want to find out: Whether the company has great ambitions? Check it’s values. Whether it’s a fast-paced environment? Check its history. Whether it has a strong sense of unity? Read through the employee stories. In a nutshell, it’s a simple and effective way of ‘reading in between the lines’”.

“Culture books are also a great way of breaking with false stereotypes in certain industries. For example, in the technology industry employees are often associated with being “geeks”. A way of encouraging change in this respect – particularly if you’re a techie business – is by showcasing what people are really like working in your organisation. A culture book is an excellent way of getting this message across.”

If a customer-led culture is the goal, this can be focused on as the chief ‘message’ within the stories embedded within the culture book.

The key with a culture book is to continually iterate. Zappos create a new book every year. Whilst this may not be feasible, it is important that a culture book evolves as it company does also.

Holly Bacon provides three tips for those curating their own culture book:

  • Language “The tone we use has the power to engage or alienate our teams and the connotations of a single word can alter our perceptions. For example, when you stop to think about it, using the word ‘probation’ puts your employees in the same box as criminals. It connotes inequality and mistrust from the outset. What’s more, it overlooks the fact that during this period a new employee is also deciding whether the company is right for them. Instead, you might wish to call it an ‘introductory period’ or ‘settling in’.”
  • Brevity “Policies have their place, but it’s not for them to be read in their entirety on an employee’s first day. Your culture book should explain where employees can find a maternity or paternity policy if they need it, but the whole document doesn’t need to be included in the handbook. Instead, think about what is going to get new employees excited and what they would really want to know.”
  • Inclusion “Different personalities and working styles will help your business to succeed, so be careful not to overlook or alienate a certain group by suggesting there is only one way of working. For example, you may have a social working culture on the whole, but it’s important to recognise that some people work best by having periods of time alone. Respecting individuality and being open to feedback should be a key part of every company culture.”

“Your handbook should be something your employees resonate with and are proud to show off,” Bacon further explains. “Don’t be afraid to publish it on your website or social media to celebrate the company’s commitment to its brand values, both internally and externally.”

No culture book has to follow a set blueprint, but as Chopra adds, it should be authentic.

“When putting together our culture book, we realised that whilst there’s a lot of hype around the meaning of culture, there is no actual definition for “culture book” and the purpose it serves.

“That’s probably why every business has a different take on it. Netflix, for example, includes content that’s considered to represent a cutting-edge management philosophy but it’s not the flashiest. Zappos, on the other hand, follow a comic style format and is filled with thoughts from employees that are updated yearly.”

Ultimately, there may well be no set formula for a culture book to follow, but if the process of creating one means customer experience leaders being able to promote the value they place on getting culture right within their organisation, then it has to be a worthy exercise.

As Hsieh so aptly explained:

“Having made the decision to focus on service, our number one priority in our company became our culture because our whole belief is that, if we get the culture right, most of the other stuff, like delivering great service, or building a long-term enduring brand will just happen naturally on its own. 

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Replies (3)

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gerry
By Gerry Brown
12th Aug 2021 12:19

Culture is alive and well and still one of the founding principles of great customer experiences as I first wrote about in 2013
https://bit.ly/3ADe5ci

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Dr. Graham Hill
By Dr. Graham Hill
16th Aug 2021 08:59

Hi Chris
An interesting article.
But it is based on an alien and one might say, sometimes self-delusional American view of culture. In this view, the leader decides what the culture will be and through his heroic efforts, persuades others to follow. That works well in blockbuster films, (that follow Joe Campbell's monomyth of the 'Hero's Journey'), but it doesn't work well in the real world, where culture isn't set by the leader, but is 'how we do things around here'.
In any organisation other than startup or small family firm, the culture will almost certainly be set by employees, not by management. And different groups of employees may have different sub-cultures too. As will merged organisations.
To be useful, a real world culture book will be about employees and their behaviours, not about management and its wishes.
Best regards, Graham
PS. I note that Zappos implementation of Holacracy hasn't been a smooth ride for Hsieh.
Why Are So Many Zappos Employees Leaving?
https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/01/zappos-holacracy-hi...
A hard lesson for the sometimes self-delusional American model of heroic leadership to think about.

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Replying to GrahamHill:
Chris Ward
By Chris Ward
19th Aug 2021 10:07

Thanks Graham. Wise words as ever! The holacracy experiment was undoubtedly a failed experiment at Zappos and I believe they ditched it not so long after it was implemented. Still, isn't one of Campbell's 12 stages the 'ordeal' phase?!

I don't dispute that there's a tinge of Americanisation in the culture book approach but what I do like about it is that a) it's something that is sculpted by employees and b) it is designed to evolve over time. Sometimes businesses go through culture change exercises, create a bunch of new values and then never revisit and revise them, which means they inevitably become meaningless. I guess this is one approach and trying to avoid that.

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