Join the Service Culture Club
Sales, management and relationships guru Tony Allessandra said “Being on par in terms of price and quality only gets you into the game. Service wins the game.” How true. I’m writing this blog from 38,134ft (11624m for the metrically minded) above the Atlantic Ocean having made my choice of airline based on my previous experience of service amongst competitors that have a roughly equivalent price and product offering. Of all the elements that make up a world class service offering (the product, the price, etc) one stands alone in being defined differently in every organisation, being near to impossible to copy, consistently eluding those who don’t take it seriously but is often the single biggest factor in defining the organisation one chooses to do business with…the SERVICE CULTURE.
OK, what is a Service Culture?
I guess the best place to start is my definition of a service culture. This comes with much experience stood at both ends of the service court. For me, it’s about the manner we operate in, our focus, the organisation’s values, beliefs, norms, rituals, and practices. That means any policy, procedure, action on the part of the organisation and its employees contributes to the service culture. Crucial, but often overlooked is that what an organisation fails or chooses not to do also contributes to the definition of a service culture. For example, some organisations choose to say sorry immediately whilst others need to be dragged to the High Courts to utter the words…it’s a culture thing. Every part of your IT organisation has a key role in communicating the culture to its customers. It’s not just about the service desk; it’s not a case of hiding the ‘techies’ away from customer. It’s about all of them. This may include such things as personal appearance, the way employees interact with customers, and service provider’s attitudes and behaviours.
Culture also encompasses an organisation’s products and services, and the physical appearance of the organisation’s facility, equipment, etc. Some limit that to just the aspects of the organisation with which the customer comes into contact. Why stop there? Too often, IT organisations can under-deliver because their internal actions, behaviours and culture are not supporting customer service initiatives. For example, in this classic scenario, there is little point in a service desk displaying empathy with users, understanding customer needs and obeying business priorities if the other support departments choose a different more technically focused path that treats users as an inconvenience. I’ve always argued that organisations with different cultures haven’t really got one and lose business as a result!! There’s a real intangible consideration, too. Service culture is about having an approach that others aspire to and want to emulate. Service is sexy!
For leaders, actions speak louder than words
The way any organisation approaches business, its philosophy, is driven from the top of that there is little or no question. The vision, the tone, the direction, the priorities of every department including IT services are driven by any one or a combination of a managing director, a CEO, a chairman, an owner and a board of directors…the “LoadsaMoney’ (sic) 1980’s show that even governments can forge the culture of a country. What often makes this difficult is a boardroom that remembers a solid manufacturing base in the UK and its associated highly unionised, often confrontational culture. The leaders in both management and unions have struggled to come to terms with the culture required to survive in the service sector. Without a clearly planned and communicated vision, the service ethic ends at the highest levels.
Leadership is crucial to customer service success. Leaders in successful organisations make themselves clearly visible to frontline employees and are in tune with customer needs and expectations. Some skeptic’s might argue Richard Branson’s appearance as a steward on transatlantic flights is purely a publicity stunt. The man himself sees it very differently. How many Caribbean islands do his skeptics own?
Granted there are times when members of management need to stay locked away in the boardroom or office. However, never venturing onto the ‘shop floor’ severely tests employee devotion to good service. Just hanging a nicely framed formal mission or philosophy statement on a wall is fine but unless it’s backed up by actions it becomes wallpaper after a week.
A ‘Magnificent 7’ ways to create the best possible service culture
We could spend weeks arguing the merits of each of the 7 following points and in which order you could implement them. Therefore, I offer each as ideas that have worked somewhere and helped make an organisation just a little more service savvy.
1. Job descriptions and role profiles with a difference
There are many additional tasks and responsibilities assigned to all staff that covers some aspect of service provision. There is little doubt that these should be included in a job description or role profile so that staff are absolutely aware that they are being measured against customer service KPIs as well as traditional process and productivity based metrics. Depending on the job description for a position and size and type of the organisation, these roles and expectations may be similar from one organisation to another, yet performed in a variety of different ways. Uniquely amongst best practice standards the Service Desk Institute’s Certification (SDC) has a section that insists they must be periodically examined and realistically updated to include actual responsibilities. This is because jobs often change rapidly in today’s changing business environment and new task assignments are given verbally but not committed to writing. It is hard for employees to be measured against goals and expectations if there is no consistency. Equally, new employees need a realistic picture of typical responsibilities.
2. It starts at the beginning
Introduce the culture as soon as a new employee is started. Tesco famously used a multi media approach based around a concept called a ‘ChangeMap’. This featured a graphical journey through the history of Tesco, its core purpose, values, business goals, financial aims, operations and marketing strategy and its commitment to customers. On line exercises, discussions and lively scenarios helped deliver the message in many different formats so even the most discerning of learners would take away the key messages.
3. Group Therapy
Encourage a sense of responsibility for group performance. End to end service provision supported by numerous departments/ suppliers and scores of possible escalations demand nothing less. For example, help IT and users see how their performance affects others. By doing this you can help emphasize the importance of “internal customer service.” Help everyone to see that if you don’t serve each other well, you can never hope to serve the ultimate customer?
Does desk top support see that the timeliness of their service to other employees makes a big difference in how the ultimate customer is served? Does the service desk realise how important it is to get the call details exactly right in so the technician fixes the right fault? Even something as seemingly insignificant as support staff returning from lunch break on time can affect the quality of the customer service you offer by determining whether you have enough coverage to serve users promptly.
4. Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men
This famous Douglas Bader quote should help to guide your service culture. It can help you create an organisation where you should never let your staff say, “Those are the rules. There’s nothing I can do about it.” Establish customer friendly policies that show concern for your staff, users and customers. Unless you are bound by regulation then eliminate all routine and rigid policies and rules. There is always a way to satisfy your users and customers. You must give your employees the power to do so.
5. Any education is customer service education
There’s an old adage that espouses the removal of any employees who do not show the behaviours necessary in customer roles. True, too many service providers allow frontline service desk staff to remain on the job when they are not able to cope with the high pressure position. They are then simply removed from the role and labeled as not customer focused or not believing in the service ethos. The truth is usually that they would have that ethos if it weren’t for their lack of things like skills, toolsets and leadership making the task more difficult than need be. Regular staff appraisals linked to education lead to one London based financial services organisation turning round a whole support organisation previously seen as unresponsive and most certainly lacking a service culture. Removal of pressure of not knowing allowed more positive customer and user interventions and a seismic shift in service to the organisation and its customers.
6. Measure the customer experience and respond
You must make the measurement of service quality and feedback from the customer a non-negotiable part of every service implementation. This information must be available and understood by everyone, no matter what their level. Make delivering exactly what the customer wants into an obsession. One UK public sector internal service provider has signs printed saying, “Customer satisfaction? Just ask!” It’s designed to serve as a constant reminder to every member of support staff that customers are the ultimate judge of whether the service is what it should be. They are encouraged to survey users for what they need and how they want it supported. They make these customer suggestions a central pillar of regular customer service communication asking users to ‘vote in’ the top ideas.
7. There is nothing man will not attempt for the promise of rewards
When you survey your customers on the quality of service, make sure that everyone, from the top down, knows of the results and receives recognition for the things that are going well. Take a leaf out of your children’s book. Their actions will always show that you get more of the behaviour you reward. Reward people for their good service behaviours. One service desk manager did this with a twist. Her daughter returned home one evening positively glowing after winning a school prize for the highest number of ‘house points’. House points for service desk staff were trialled and the whole support department can now be nominated for ‘house points’ by users. They’ve even introduced Harry Potter style houses (Yes, Slytherin, Grifindor, etc) and a House Cup every ‘term’. A simple but highly effective solution. All types of rewards are possible to encourage the right behaviour. Cash awards are nice, yes, but there are many other ways to say, “well done.” Extra time off, tickets to special events, recognition in a staff newsletter or a simple ‘thank you’ are all ways to reward the kinds of behaviours you want to see more of.
In order for a culture of customer service excellence to grow and mature, management must have an all consuming desire for it to be that way. They need to provide the energy to ensure that this desire spreads throughout the organisation and remains there permanently. You must believe it is possible to become a totally customer-focused organisation.
There are so many things that can influence a customer’s decision to use and keep using your products and services that service managers have little or no control over. Culture is not one of those things. By being proactive and applying some sound customer service and management strategies, any organisation can increase its customer focus and mature its service culture.
It’s simple. Customer service is the responsibility of everyone in the organisation whether directly or indirectly. To paraphrase former Liberal leader David Steel, “Go back to your offices and prepare for service.…”