Building a superior and sustainable service culture is a vital and complex project that can deliver positive social consequences and lasting commercial results. Many elements will contribute to the success or failure of your service culture building program. Getting It Right means doing what works and following a proven path. Getting It Wrong means ineffective efforts, wasted resources, and unnecessary frustration.
With 25 years of experience in helping leaders and organizations succeed in building service cultures, we have been part of many innovations and successes. We have also seen – and learned from – occasional errors and failures.
If you are seeking to achieve a revolution in the service culture of your organization – if you want to change the mindset and actions of a large group to provide a better service to customers and colleagues – then read these “Four Rules for a Service Revolution” and consider where your current efforts are frustrating you by getting it wrong, or supporting you by getting it right.
Rule 1: Don’t just train your frontline service staff. Instead, educate everyone in the tools and skills of service.
Rule 1: Getting it Wrong
We worked with a global telecommunications company who insisted that service improvement efforts in a major line of business should be initially focused only on their frontline staff. Their rationale was that only frontline staff members actually speak to customers, so frontline staff should therefore receive the vast majority of service attention and training.
This is a common mistake. Encouraging frontline service providers to give better external service to customers is a recipe for frustration if those frontline service providers not already receiving better service and support from their colleagues in other departments. For example, asking someone on the frontline to go the extra mile for a customer is very difficult if the operations and administrative team behind the frontline are not already providing extra mile support.
In this telecommunications company, the frontline’s service to customers was highly dependent upon the financial, legal, product development and logistics support they received from the company’s software developers and hardware manufacturers. Unfortunately, these two essential departments were not included in the company’s initial service improvement efforts, and therefore saw no compelling reason to change. Even worse, as motivated frontline staff tried to provide their customers with better service through greater responsiveness, flexibility, and speed, the software and hardware developers experienced each new request as burdensome, unnecessary, or unreasonable.
After a year of frontline employee frustration and many customer service complaints, the company finally included back office and factory employees in their service improvement program.
Rule 1: Getting it Right
At NTUC Income, Singapore’s largest insurance company, a new CEO declared a bold “cultural revolution” to quickly and dramatically improve service throughout the organization. While the vast majority of customer contacts are handled by the agency force during new policy sales, questions, and claims, the company intentionally began their revolution with service education for all working inside the organization; product development, marketing, actuarial, human resources, finance and IT.
The service improvement program flourished under the uplifting banner of“Service Alive!”, delivering engaging and value-adding experiences to customers and to colleagues. The first implementation of this project was so internally focused that the company coined an even more revealing banner of “Alive Inside”.
One year after the launch of this program, with internal service substantially improved, NTUC Income turned its attention to the customer-facing agency sales force. Since the agents themselves were now experiencing better service, and customers contacting the company directly were also receiving better service, it was natural and welcome for the agency force to bring their standard of service up the new levels already achieved inside the organization.
One example of this company-wide service focus was the successful implementation of a unique fraud reduction program. The company fielded a small squad of specially trained drivers on orange three-wheelers onto Singapore’s highways. Their purpose was to locate drivers and cars in distress before towing companies could reach them, securing accurate information on the spot and thereby preventing fraud. However, with everyone educated and passionate about uplifting service, the dispatch team and drivers created a roadside experience so positive that stories about the “Orange Force” flourished in the media and online, creating an unexpected return in brand image and customer loyalty.
Rule 2: Don’t just teach the mechanics of better service. Instead, first focus on the meaning and purpose of providing better service to others.
Rule 2: Getting It Wrong
A diversified financial services company in India sought to improve their service culture by focusing on the mechanics: standard operating procedures (SOPs), scripts, and checklists. Each part of the company was given free rein to develop whatever mechanics would be most convenient and effective for their department to increase immediate customer satisfaction.
And this approach worked. But with departmental efficiency at the forefront, each product group and distribution channel developed their own procedures and the resulting client experience when working across groups was disjointed. Corporate customers struggled to cope with procedural inconsistencies and frequent requests for the same information. Referring someone with a business account to a personal financial adviser was like sending them to a completely different company.
This focus on procedures created short term improvemnts, but missed the opportunity to build a strong and coherent culture of service with the customer at the centre.
Rule 2: Getting It Right
LUX* Resorts launched the transformation of their brand by focusing everyone on the meaning of service. In the resort industry, a vacationer’s time is their most precious resource. Executives want to de-stress. Families want to create memories. Frequent travellers seek new experiences. Honeymooners arrive with the highest of expectations.
Rather than focusing on “what to do” in service situations – by the pool, in the restaurant, at the spa – LUX* focused everyone in all positions and all departments on a vision that reflects the true meaning of LUX* hospitality – “We Make Each Moment Matter” – and the real purpose of their jobs – “Helping People Celebrate Life”.
With this shared alignment on the meaning and value of service, all subsequent education and training stands on a purposeful foundation. Teaching “what to do” follows easily from understanding “why to do it”. New ideas emerge from all levels and departments. Collaboration across departments and properties comes naturally as internal service departments proactively create opportunities to help their colleagues delight their guests.
Today the LUX* service brand is so strong that employees are regularly sought after by other resorts. At the same time, the strength and satisfaction of the LUX* culture is so strong that staff retention is at an all-time high.
Rule 3: Don’t take small steps. Instead, go big and go fast to create a groundswell of support for a service revolution.
Rule 3: Getting It Wrong
A large software company engaged us to help improve service to customers and partners in their “last mile” of licensing, delivery and activation support. Our fundamental service principles were smoothly applied and performance improved, but only in the limited area of the company where this initiative was undertaken. Other areas including software development, business units, industry sectors, and geographic regions were not included in this process of service education.
The company’s matrix model of management meant that decisions about who and how and when to provide such education were widely dispersed. Authority to commit employee’s time and company resources was balkanized to the point of frustration and dysfunction. Frequent meetings were held with representatives of departments agreeing on the need to serve more effectively together, but simultaneously lamenting their inability to muster people to learn together across the same departments.
While the “last mile” of service delivery was dependent upon upstream groups for effective product design and technical support, those serving at the tail end had no power to insist upon improved service from those working upstream.
Rule 3: Getting It Right
A few years ago the national airline of Mauritius was struggling with a $30 million financial loss, poor customer service ratings, and low staff morale. Set in a difficult commercial environment, the company faced many business and cultural challenges.
A new CEO stepped in and proposed a bold and improbable challenge: return the airline to profitability in 24 months, and simultaneously leap from a 3-star Skytrax ranking to the more rare and prestigious 4-star ranking. Given the economic challenges and the difficulty of earning that prestigious fourth star, not to mention shifting the attitudes and behaviors of 2,800-plus employees, this was a gargantuan task demanding urgency and speed-to-scale.
In two years both challenges were successfully achieved. Not only did Air Mauritius reach its 4-star status, but it returned to profitability (realizing an $8 million profit), and was named among the Skytrax “Top 10 Most Improved Airlines”.
To accomplish these feats of rapid service and financial improvement, Air Mauritius followed the rule of going big and going fast to create a positive service revolution. To engage the entire workforce quickly and aggressively, to get everyone involved and to prevent outdated mindsets and behaviors from resurfacing, the airline rolled out a company-wide program of service education and service improvement actions. This included a series of Service Leadership Workshops for members of the management team, a special Train-the-Trainer program for selected employees, and then an intensive two-day course in problem-solving and new value-generating service ideas for all employees in all departments.
This education introduced a new language of service, and was immediately followed by cross-functional project teams identifying which new ideas could be implemented with lowest cost, fastest results, and greatest effect.
This groundswell of education and new action generated the momentum needed to overcome the cultural status-quo of cynicism and resignation. And this all happened in the space of just a few months, lightning fast compared to the glacial pace of most big corporations.
A new and shared service language is essential to support new and better service behaviors. At Air Mauritius, the airline’s vision for service improvement was expressed in three words communicating the immediate challenge and the opportunity. First, everyone needed to move to a new level of action. Standing still was not an option and thus the active word “Stepping” was selected. Second, the airline needed to raise service levels and customer perceptions at every point of contact. This commitment to perform better was captured in the word “UP.” Third, the entire workforce needed to change their attitudes and behaviors to collaborate more effectively, serving and communicating as a unified group and not as separate functions – “Together.”
“Stepping UP Together” aligned all team members to deliver service improvements and financial success in record time. Today Air Mauritius is aiming even higher. A second series of intensive courses and workshops are now being conducted with characteristic urgency and a motivating new vision for “Taking the Next Step UP”.
Rule 4: Don’t obsess about traditional KPIs. Instead, focus on “leading indicators” of service culture success.
Rule 4: Getting It Wrong
A large semiconductor manufacturer provided an unfortunate example of failure by focusing on the wrong metrics for service success. Founded by a family of engineers, the company focused intensively on increasing factory yields, reducing waste, and accelerating cycle times. The company calculated that steady improvements in these areas would inevitably lead to faster response, lower prices, and greater customer satisfaction. While these internal measures are not incorrect, for every factory must track performance, relying on these measures to assess customer satisfaction is misguided. What happens in the factory is simply too far from the interface where customer experience is created and evaluated.
The company showcased these traditional KPIs daily in the cafeteria and thereby kept employees focused on improving production, not on improving customer interactions. The company claimed to be “obsessed with customers”, but posters on every wall featured the company’s own facilities and products with not a customer in sight. Even their “Total Customer Satisfaction Contest” was judged based on quantitative product and process improvements, not on improving actual customer experience.
This focus on internal methods and metrics blinded employees to emerging market changes and more responsive competition. Primary attention on factory performance prevented the company from proactively and persistently building closer dialogue with customers. Meanwhile, another company in the field took away substantial market share by tracking and measuring “number of changes made per month” in pursuit of a better customer experience. This metric drove constant curiosity about what their customers wanted, and wanted changed, which created the mindset – and the behavior – of continuous customer experience improvement.
Rule 4: Getting It Right
NIIT Technologies Limited (NTL) is a rapidly growing IT firm in India that serves the Fortune 1000 worldwide. The company, like the Indian software industry, initially provided customers with a proposition for cost-reduction by offshoring various back-office, data-processing, and maintenance responsibilities. However, as the company has grown and the industry matured, customers now seek insights and advice, value-creating recommendations as well as cost savings.
Further, increasingly large deal sizes have resulted in greater complexity for the company in dialogue with customers, and internally between departments. These changes demand more creativity and flexibility from a culture that was initially designed to deliver predictable and consistent performance.
Seeking to accomplish a fundamental shift in company culture, NTL worked with us to draft and launch an innovative and future-focused vision: “New Ideas, More Value”, which aligns with our definition of service as taking action to create value for someone else.
The company introduced new service education courses and launched a contest to measure the “Number of New Ideas”submitted by each department. Harnessing their natural appetite for internal competition, employees quickly generated more than 2,000 new ideas to improve service inside and outside the organization. This avalanche of suggestions was soon followed by a second contest to measure “Number of New Ideas Implemented”. This resulted in each department sifting through the avalanche to identify those ideas with the greatest potential for rapid implementation.
Finally, a third contest was launched – all this within 18 months – to measure the ultimate purpose of the company’s new actions and vision: “Value Created for Customers”. In a recently held awards ceremony, many teams were recognized for achieving remarkable internal results, including dramatic reductions in cost, effort, storage, and CPU processing time.
But the greatest results – and the contest winners – were those who delivered the most new value to customers as measured by customer retention, increased deal size, and through the customers’ own words and actions. The winning teams proudly reported:
“These initiatives helped us create stronger bonds between customer and NTL teams. For example, when this customer requires additional resources onsite or offshore, they select NTL in utmost good faith and without conducting any interview or going through a selection process. They just believe in our capability to serve them.”
“For NTL, the benefit is in retaining existing business when the customer was looking for outside for a new vendor to further reduce IT operational cost. (After our recent initiative) this customer cancelled their decision to go for RFP (Request for Proposal) on overall IT Application Support and Maintenance and instead requested NTL to continue without a competitive contest, and even included other Application areas where different vendors are currently working. In short these new ideas and initiatives changed customer mindset and perception of our service capability in a very positive direction.”
Getting It Right means focusing on new service improvement ideas and taking new service actions. If you focus too strongly on internal process measures or final business results, you risk demoralizing your team and distorting where their focus needs to be – generating ideas and taking actions, not watching the traditional scoreboard.
Ron Kaufman is a global consultant who specializes in building service cultures. He is the author of UP! Your Service and 14 other books. His firm, UP! Your