Culture building

Creating a customer-centric culture reaps rewards, as Jane Sparrow explores

In a busy call centre, a customer services operator prepared to take his first call. There was nothing remarkable about this day, other than the fact that it was Valentine’s Day. Earlier in the week, he and his colleagues had been asked to bring in a photo of a loved one, be it a brother, wife or friend. In the morning team meeting, the manager encouraged everyone to display the image on their desk. This, he explained, was to act as a reminder that every single caller was also a much loved husband, mother or grandparent. Their customers weren’t account numbers or policy references – they were real people with real lives and emotions.


It’s a simple example of inspiring employees to deliver great customer service and shows in practical terms what it means to engage staff to want to make a difference and help customers feel truly valued. Forget process, customer efficiency or call handling times, the objective that day was to remind people of their direct influence on the hearts and minds of their customers. When employees can make a link between something that gives them meaning, they can go on to find a greater depth and purpose in what they do day-to-day for their customers.

Being able to create rich, unique experiences for others has a proven effect on business performance but unless employees are motivated, inspired and willing to perform it’s unlikely customers will ever experience exceptional service. How customers feel about an organisation is significantly influenced by how employees feel about it, and in turn how that drives their actions, behaviours and ultimately every customer interaction.

There are so many organisations that talk the talk about customer service being key (and have the values posters to prove it!) but very few actually have a culture that nurtures customer service and delivers it as part of their very DNA. A typical response to a customer service challenge, perhaps driven by poor customer reviews or feedback, is to put in place more process (and measure that process of course) but this will only ever take things so far. A true customer excellence culture, and the resulting sustainable growth, comes from a much earlier start point which is helping customer-facing employees actually understand and believe in it.

Within customer service, the tools or processes organisations use is far too often the front runner, without any true engagement around the ‘why’ (what we believe) or the common behaviours that bring a customer service culture to life in an organisation and drive employee desires to act in a certain way.

For any given organisation, this will manifest in key questions. Why is customer service important? What does it mean to our business? What does great customer service look like, sound like, feel like in our organisation? When our customers have an amazing customer experience – ask why? What did we do that sets us apart that we can replicate? How can this drive our
business forward?

An important part of customer service is a recognition that great customer service doesn’t always mean giving everything away. The customer is not necessarily always right but dealing with this often means being able to have difficult but honest conversations with customers, and employees understanding this is key. This is a just one area where active leadership and line management is critical with daily inspirations vital. However, inspiring and igniting the passion in others is an area where managers are not given enough support and this is common across most organisations where [pullquote]the vital cog of ‘how to elicit the best performance from employees’ is often missed altogether[/pullquote]. As a result, even the most well intentioned manager can struggle to engage their teams to really achieve.

Zappos is well known for being legendary in its approach to wowing their customers by recognising that nothing replaces the power of the human touch when it comes to delivering exceptional service and consequently, it has focused its investment in people development, rather than expensive sales campaigns or internal process upgrades. A detailed examination of the makeup of customer service in an organisation like Zappos, with people and managers at the heart, will always be effective in highlighting the relationships and behaviours that distinguish one company’s customer service approach from another. In an opposite example, we were recently brought in to work with a major UK retailer with 33,000 line managers and an objective to change behaviour around customer service. Because they had started with the process alone not the ‘why’ or the reason to believe, there was no real support or desire to change behaviours, let alone those of their teams.

Line managers remain the single most important source of influence in building and shaping new cultures. As one of eight key areas that are measured and analysed in the Sunday Times Best Companies To Work For, ‘My Manager’, defined as ‘how staff feel towards their immediate boss and day-to-day managers’, is now seen as one of the leading indicators of a positive workplace culture. Line managers are also the most trusted group of employees in companies, therefore, the business case for continuous development and evaluation of this ‘layer’ of management is huge, yet many companies don’t recognise or respond to this.

Line managers are so often the missing link in bringing to life those customer values posters on the wall. Bridging the gap between the needs of an organisation to fully engage its workforce and the capacity and skills of its leaders and managers to do so is vital and much of this starts with understanding the emotional intelligence and preferences of line managers in order to develop their potential to lead and engage others and ultimately be the best that they can be.

There are a myriad of roles that leaders and managers need to be able to embrace in order to become expert engagers of their people and bring customer service culture to life. The starting point is to understand where natural preferences lie as a line manager because only then can work be done on actively calling upon other styles, when needed, or indeed playing down those that are essentially the default position.

For example, the Engagement Intelligence profiling tool, finds that human resources or learning and development leaders and managers have a low preference for storytelling. The art of storytelling uses an emotional and logical mix to bring to life the story about ‘why’ we are doing what we are doing, by also talking about what it will look and feel like when we get there and, crucially, what it means for me as an individual. Instead, HR or L&D managers tend to have more of a natural preference towards being a strategist, focused on logical, process-driven action planning and delivery. In practice, this means that the ‘why’ part of the puzzle is often lost in the eagerness of the HR or L&D professional to explain what is happening and what will happen next. As a manager, being aware of this means that one can focus on developing that muscle and using it more as one of a range of engagement styles.

In some organisations, the challenge around customer service is one of a very different nature. We recently worked with Seren Group, a group of companies providing housing and social care. A highly purposeful group, with good engagement scores, high levels of trust and a driven, energetic culture, they recognised the need not to rest on their laurels and pay constant attention to the development of their customer service culture. We worked together to map their current culture, their future aspirations and what was required to get them there. They also used the profiling tool to understand where they each were as managers and what they would need to develop and play down at various points on that journey. Within most commercial organisations, the biggest misalignment is in the beliefs and the behaviours but at Seren Group, and something we often find with not-for-profits, the belief in the values and purpose was steadfast and it was the structure and processes that we were able to develop further. There’s also a really important message here about sustainability. If your organisation already has a high performing customer service culture – do you truly understand what will keep it there and support it to evolve further in the future?

[pullquote]In organisational cultures where there is nurturing and investment in employees, customer experiences become richer and more impactful[/pullquote]. One also sees a shift towards employee ownership of their own customer service culture – which is essential to its sustainability and sticking power. A simple example of this empowerment of employees to own their own culture comes from Coloplast, a global medical services company. Employees in the cutting room (where orders are prepared for shipment) decided to sign boxes before their products were distributed to customers. Driven by a wider context of an established customer culture, they believed this was a gesture that would help customers feel really valued, something that staff were so passionate about that they took the initiative and acted upon it.

A recent project with a leading UK banking group was largely focused on this element of individual ownership and everyday behaviours that employees could take ownership of in their interactions with customers. Simple, everyday things to create exceptional relationships with their customers and actually deliver the value of ‘customer centricity.’ One example of this was the decision of one member of staff to learn how to say ‘hello, how are you’ in five different languages to connect with the individual customer he was about to serve.

A common disconnect when it comes to organisational culture, particularly that of customer service is the way a company describes its culture versus how it’s employees and its customers do. Many organisations undertake work to redefine their values model, often supporting them in reaching out to their employees, customers and other stakeholders to understand their perceptions of how they do business and what appears to be important to the organisation. This is often a ‘look through the fingers’ job on hearing the results but it can be an insightful, positive experience if approached in the right way. The very act of ‘listening’ puts any business on the front foot immediately, no matter how hard the feedback is to hear. Once an organisation is empowered with this knowledge, setting about redefining and reintroducing their values can be a much more fruitful process. 

A great example of this was Michael O’Leary’s decision to tackle Ryanair’s reputation for poor customer service following the worst customer service ratings out of Britain’s 100 biggest brands according to Which? in 2013. The results of the opinion poll and impact of the company’s ‘abrupt’ culture resulted in an intense battle for the company to secure loyalty from both recreational and business travellers who expect great service as standard. The airline’s solution included the ‘elimination’ of things that caused time and hassle for travellers – relaxation of baggage restrictions, the adoption of American Express (the favoured credit card of choice for many business travellers) as well as a streamlined website to get customers clicking and buying as painlessly as possible.

The latest news from Ryanair earlier this year was the launch of a customer charter promising lower fees, price comparisons and a redesign of everything from uniforms to menus and cabins. The airline’s chief marketing officer, Kenny Jacobs, recently said: “We’re not saying now that we’ve fixed Ryanair. It’s a relentless pursuit…we will continue to listen and strive to enhance every aspect of our business and our new customer charter outlines the way we want to deliver an enjoyable, simple and low-cost travel experience to customers.” Jacobs also said the airline would be “judged on how we live by this charter”, which will be given to customers. With the initial phase of the customer response programme having seen forward bookings and profits rising and with an expectation that passenger numbers will climb to 100m this year, they are certainly doing something right. The only thing that gets no visibility is what is happening behind the scenes with Ryanair’s managers and employees to ensure that this latest customer charter is more than just a piece of paper nailed to the cabin door to grab the headlines.

Creating and sustaining a successful customer-centric culture, where each employee believes in it and is motivated to be the best they can be for each customer interaction is for many, the holy grail of business performance. It is not an easy place to get to and requires constant attention, investment and development in order to stay there. Organisations who have truly recognised not only the customer service challenge but also the huge opportunity, and who are making the commitment to invest purposefully in their leaders, line managers and wider employee population will be reaping the rewards and standing out in their marketplaces – for all of the right reasons. 


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