All Great Customer Service Cultures Share These 8 Elements. How Does Your Company Measure Up?
Micah Solomon | Forbes
I define “customer service culture” as an atmosphere in which employees, management and leadership serve their customers eagerly and effectively. (Think Nordstrom, USAA Insurance, Southwest Airlines, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, Apple, Zappos, The Container Store, and Starbucks –- and their equally excellent B2B counterparts.) In such a culture, service to customers is a way of life, a default position, something that is relentlessly pursued and refined.
In my work with and study of such companies, I find each culture to be, on the surface, quite distinct. An employee who has spent her life working at USAA and is suddenly transported to the Customer Loyalty Team (contact center) at Zappos would need a significant adjustment period before she felt at home. However, below those surface distinctions, these customer service cultures have a lot in common. Here’s my list of eight characteristics that are shared, and consciously nurtured, by all of them.
I often hear from Nordstrom employees in response to articles I write about their customer service prowess. What I find notable is that Nordstrom employees never write in merely to slap themselves on the back. Instead, the comments I receive are along the lines of “thank you very much for the recognition in the article; we’re always striving to provide great service and to improve in the ways we do so,” rather than “oh yeah—aren’t we great?”
Employees at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company are not “associates,” they are Ladies and Gentlemen. It sounds anachronistic to an outsider, but it makes a difference to the employees. At Southwest Airlines, the pride is so tangible that a flight attendant (on hearing that I write about customer service) once mailed me her own copy of Nuts! (the classic book about Southwest) with 40 or 45 notes written inside it, comments like “so true!” and “this is what I love about working here!”
3. No “not my job.”
Lateral service, the understanding that you’ll pitch in wherever you are needed, regardless of your job description, is part of every customer service culture. This can manifest itself daily, as in the way that every employee (sorry: “cast member”) at a Disney park will interrupt whatever they’re doing to pick up stray trash. Or, it can be something that comes up primarily on special occasions, the days when so much capacity is needed that the year-round staff can’t handle the influx. For example, during the holiday rush, the Zappos executive team, including CEO Tony Hsieh, work the phone lines shoulder-to-shoulder with their full-time contact center crew.
4. Culturally consonant HR practices.
It’s hard to build a customer service culture if you don’t start out with employees who possess the right personality traits for customer service. (For a quick rule of thumb consider my WETCO traits -– Warmth, Empathy, Teamwork, Conscientiousness, and Optimism –- but there are more elaborate and in-depth profiling tools you can use as well.) This doesn’t guarantee that every employee hired via trait-based selection is guaranteed to become a great customer-focused employee, but it does mean that you’re starting off with raw material that has a solid chance of being appropriately shaped through item number five on our list…
5. Training and re-training.
Training can take many shapes: from customer service keynotes, workshops, and training session to informal, employee-led 10-minute “lineups” such as The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company has held every single shift for over thirty years. Either way, customer service greatness isn’t left to happenstance or to suffer the vagaries of inertia and entropy.
6. A common language.
Southwest Airlines uses Specially Capitalized Words and creatively spells Luv in their mission statement and internal documents; Zappos’ employees (i.e., Zapponians) have an internal language that is at times impenetrable to outsiders, etc. This helps to bring a company together. (Important note: Internal jargon shouldn’t be used in conversation with customers, as it will likely confuse them or make them feel like they’re outsiders.
7. Legendary stories.
Tales of over-the-top customer service are valuable in making a point to prospective, incoming, and even veteran employees about what is valued in the culture. Southwest Airlines has many; Nordstrom has the tale of “refunding someone their money for tires — even though we don’t sell tires”; there’s the Zappos 10-hour contact center phone call story, and so forth.
Once you’ve hired, onboarded, and trained for customer service greatness, it’s time to give those primed-to-be-great employees some power! And all great customer service cultures do so: Nordstrom is famous for this; same with Zappos. And every full-time Ritz-Carlton employee has up to $2,000 in automatic discretionary power to solve any customer issue.
How does your own company fare against these customer service greats? If you’re missing a few, or many, of these elements, don’t panic and don’t despair. Just know that it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.
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