Every organization has a culture -- a set of beliefs and behaviors that reflect the goals, purposes, and intentions, and ultimately what is viewed as acceptable behavior within the company -- and that culture not only affects how people act within the business but how your customers are treated by the employees.
What sets a typical company apart from one that has a strong customer service culture? The difference isn’t always obvious from the outside. It's not like there's a big neon sign saying "We treat our customers poorly!" but it is something that can be felt -- especially by your customers. However, a good customer service team generally follows certain observable common traits in a strong customer service culture.
A strong customer service culture is one where:
- The customer service team is a valuable and respected part of the organization.
- Customer impact is an important part of business decisions.
- Everyone in the business, not just the customer-facing teams, has an accurate understanding of who the customers are and what is important to them.
- Customer service is a big part of the business’s strategic vision.
- The company has a clear definition of “good customer service.”
A good example of a company that has implemented a customer service culture is Southwest Airlines. The company has put customers first in many aspects of its business. Offering low prices, no hassle changes and cancellations, no baggage fees, and having friendly staff shows the company's efforts in focusing their business around the customer. The company seems to truly value its customers and hires people at all levels with that in mind. Companies might value their customers and even include them in their mission statement, but actions speak volumes -- if they don't focus on customers in their daily operations, they are not creating a corporate culture that is customer-centric.
Building a customer service culture
Much like building any company culture, you have to create an environment where the words, actions, and habits you repeat and reinforce enable a customer service culture to flourish and become a reality in your business.
To use a construction metaphor, you can't build a house on quicksand. The foundation has to be stable and solid. Likewise, the foundation of your company culture has to be strong and sustainable, and able to hold the weight of what it is that you're trying to build. The way you treat your employees and the internal culture that is nurtured will naturally have an impact on how your customers are treated.
Strategies for executives
Business owners and executives have the biggest impact on a company’s culture through their ability to shape the direction of policy and allocation of finances to the areas they deem important. Here are some ways an executive can encourage a strong customer service culture:
- Listen to your customers: Before you can know for sure what your customers need and want, it is essential to listen to them. Be open to hearing from your customer base and getting valuable information that can guide you in how you formulate policy on how your customers are treated. Sales calls, support calls, surveys, focus groups — all goldmines of intel.
- Goals and vision: Take a close look at your company goals, objectives, vision, and mission statement, and ensure that your commitment to customer service is reflected in them. If it isn’t, it could disappear from your daily focus and into obscurity.
- Hiring: Your employees make up the collective values, decisions, behaviors, and attitudes that comprise your company culture. Look for people in all areas of the business who have an eye for service.
- Firing: Anyone in your business who treats people poorly as a habit, or who clearly isn't a good fit for the culture you are trying to create will be counter-productive (and ultimately destructive) to a culture of customer service. Let them go.
- Share internally: Share customer stories in your internal newsletter. Talk to your employees about customer experience. Reinforce the fact that there are real people to whom you are providing products and services that have real interactions with your company, and that the way you treat them has a real effect on their lives.
- Support your service teams: By elevating and supporting your service teams, you are sending a message of their value and importance to the company. Include customer service in high-level decision-making. Publicly acknowledge their successes. Report on customer service metrics to your board.
- Internal service: Lead by example. If your company culture is that of kindness, responsiveness, compassion, etc. then this culture will likely pass along to your customers. If you show an attitude of service toward your staff, the tone you set is the one they will follow.
- Resources: Talk is cheap. But your company budget sends the strongest message. If customer service really counts, then it should be well-funded. This includes comprehensive training programs for service teams. Improvement comes from repetitive and deliberate preparation and training. It would also include a great quality assurance program where team members are allowed to make mistakes but are also given the opportunity to improve their quality of service so that they can deliver the customer experience you're striving for.
Corporate culture is ever-changing and should evolve in response to shifting priorities, milestones, staff, etc. so it requires ongoing effort and attention. While executives must continue to be thoughtful and deliberate about their internal culture, they should also never lose sight of their customers and how to best serve them. After all, they are what is keeping you in business in the long term, and are worth the effort.