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In 2015, Rewire Your Culture Around Service

By Ron Kaufman


For years you've tried to improve your customer service. You've trained and trained (burning through too many initiatives to count), but the results never seem to stick. You might see a surge of improvement with each new initiative—just enough to make you think you've finally figured it out—but something happens and you slide back to mediocrity. That, or your results are hit and miss—you get great customer feedback about one department, while another's scores flat-line or even sink. Either way, you're sick of reinventing yourself and morale has never been lower.

Great service is not about memorizing scripts or following a certain sequence of steps. It is about changing hearts, minds, attitudes. It's about infusing the genuine desire to continuously improve service into the very fabric of your culture.

Once you hardwire your culture this way, you'll see a huge leap in customer delight. Best of all, the results won't fade away because truly serving others is a two-way street. You can't bring joy to customers without also bringing joy to employees—and joyful employees want to keep doing what they're doing.

When you align your culture around the intention to uplift and inspire others, many of the other problems you have, fix themselves. Service really is the elusive magic bullet.

Here are seven rules of service leadership:

Rule 1: Declare service a top priority. Declaration is powerful. It's a human linguistic act that creates a new possibility or a new situation and sets real change in motion. A nation declares itself independent. A judge declares a person innocent or guilty. JFK declares that America will put a man on the moon.

In 2017, NTUC Income in Singapore was perceived as "traditional and conservative." When new CEO Mr. Tan Suee Chieh came on board, he boldly and publicly declared that uplifting service was now a top priority and ran his declaration as a full-page ad in the local paper. Within three years, NTUC had achieved the highest industry levels of customer satisfaction in the country, had dramatically changed the market's perception of the brand, and had increased market share to the number one position in key segments. Other companies known for their consistently high-quality service organizations that have built profitable and enduring reputations include: Nordstrom, Disney, Southwest Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and The Ritz-Carlton.

Rule 2: Be a great role model. Leaders are the people who others choose to follow, not those who simply tell other people what to do.

A senior executive from Matsushita Electric (now Panasonic Corporation) was visiting one of the company's manufacturing plants overseas. Employees had even rolled out a red carpet for the occasion. In the middle of the inspection, the executive walked slowly but deliberately off the carpet toward one of the factory's largest machines. Seven hundred workers watched in amazement as he bent down, reached under the machine, picked up a paperclip, and tucked it into his suit pocket. Then the executive quietly returned to the red carpet and continued the tour.

The executive could have asked someone else to pick up the paperclip. He could have scolded, instructed, and sent out a memo. But instead he simply "modeled" an expectation and in doing so, set a high standard for maintaining cleanliness in the plant. The message of this action resonated for years.

Rule 3: Promote a common service language. When everyone inside an organization is speaking the same language, then everyone is literally on the same page regarding the service they provide. You're likely familiar with common service languages of other companies. For example, Disney refers to its employees as "cast members." At FedEx they say, "Our blood runs purple," and at Ritz-Carlton they say, "Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen."

The service language must be spoken by everyone—including leaders. Remember Mr. Tan of NTUC? When he made his declaration, it was initially met with skepticism. Some middle managers weren't using the new language, which centered on the phrase "Service Alive!" So Mr. Tan had them attend the service training classes employees were taking and he joined each class at the beginning and the end. Then, leaders launched a service improvement contest requiring managers to work closely with staff to implement what they learned. Soon the managers were saying, "We've got to work together using this language." The results were tremendous. When service leaders speak and act, people listen and choose to follow.

Rule 4: Measure what really matters. When it comes to service, what to measure can be confusing. You must focus everyone on the measures that matter the most: the leading indicators of new ideas and value-creating action steps, rather than the lagging indicators of share price, profits, or survey results.

At first glance, you might think your scores—customer satisfaction scores, loyalty scores, HCAHPS scores—are the best indicators that your service culture is improving. But you don't measure those things every day. So a more immediate indicator is compliments; when people are giving you good feedback internally and externally, you know your scores are headed north. But compliments aren't leading indicators either.

In order to get those compliments, somebody has to come up with a new idea and take an action that's not expected. They have to create an experience that will produce a compliment. So leaders need to ask, Are your actions creating value? and, Are you taking enough new actions? Then you need to measure what really matters, from the bottom up.

Rule 5: Empower your team. We all understand that improved service is unlikely to happen inside or outside of an organization without empowerment. Yet many leaders and employees seem to fear it. If a leader is not confident in her people, she doesn't want to empower them with greater authority or a larger budget. And if an employee is not confident in his abilities and decisions, he often does not want the responsibility of being empowered.

In both cases, what's missing is not empowerment, but the teaching, coaching, mentoring, and encouraging that must go with it. Empowering others in pursuit of uplifting service cannot and should not be decoupled from the responsibility to properly enable those you empower.

A big part of empowerment is demystifying the fear that comes along with making a mistake. Try having a meeting and say, "We want learning from mistakes to be part of our culture." Then, the leader says, "I'll go first. Here's the biggest mistake I made last week. Here's what I learned from it. What can I learn from you?" When everyone shares in this way it makes employees feel safer and gives them the freedom to take action.

Rule 6: Remove the roadblocks to better service. While I was dining at a luxury resort in California, the waiter explained that there was a special menu that night, spotlighting several of the chef's signature dishes. But my guests were vegetarians and had nothing to choose from on the menu, and I had been craving a salmon salad. So we asked to order from the regular menu. Obviously uncomfortable, the waiter replied, "If you go back to your room and order room service, then you can order the salmon salad or anything else on [the room service] menu."

In trying to spotlight the chef's menu, the restaurant had created a major roadblock for the people who worked there. Like this waiter, most frontline staff members are taught to follow policies and procedures and are hesitant to "break the rules." Yet some rules should be broken, changed, or at least seriously bent from time to time.

What roadblocks to better service lurk inside your organization? What prevents your people from taking better care of your customers? What stops them from helping their colleagues? Service leaders ask these questions and remove the roadblocks they uncover.

Rule 7: Sustain focus and enthusiasm. It's not difficult to declare service a top priority. What's challenging is keeping service top of mind when other issues clamor for attention.

Every day, distractions pop up that will knock you and your employees off course. Your people are going to get sand in their gears, and when that happens, it's your job to keep them focused and enthusiastic. How do you do that? You find opportunities to educate. You recognize individual successes. You role model what needs to happen and then recognize when other people act as role models. You acknowledge achievements. Overlooking Rule 7 could be the mistake that derails all your plans and programs. The sustained commitment to keep focus and enthusiasm high, to put these ideas into action, must come from you.

Ron Kaufman is the author of the New York Times bestseller Uplifting Service and 14 other books on service, business, and inspiration. He has helped companies on every continent build a culture of uplifting service that delivers real business results year after year.

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