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Helping Make the Cultural Shift

Ron Kaufman helps companies on every continent build a culture of uplifting service that delivers real business results. Making transformation his mission, Ron is one of the world’s most sought-after thought leaders and experts on achieving superior service. With a clientele of government agencies and multinational corporations including Singapore Airlines, Xerox, Nokia Siemens Networks, and Wipro, Ron delivers powerful insights and global best practices, enabling organizations to gain a sustainable advantage through service. Ron recently spoke to LiveMint about  why companies whose cultures aren’t built around the eagerness to delight the customer won’t survive:

A few years ago, Air Mauritius struggled with a $30 million loss, mediocre service ratings, and bad staff morale. Thanks to a dramatic culture shift, it’s profitable again and has earned the prestigious 4-star Skytrax rating.

Global service guru Ron Kaufman, who worked closely with Air Mauritius on significantly improving its service, says there are some lessons all companies can learn from its example. “In a hyper-connected global economy, a company is only as good as its reputation for service,” says Kaufman. “It’s not hard to see why. As customers, we want to be treated like we matter. Service has become one of the most critical competitive advantages to harness and yet not everyone knows how to get it right.” There is indeed little doubt today that companies which under-serve customers stand to lose them quickly to a surging sea of competitors waiting to embrace them.

Add to that, when customers are treated poorly, they can wreck havoc on a company’s reputation by instantly airing their indignation via social media public forums, which are a mere click away. Agile companies work around the clock to avoid this scenario, but it is not always easy. Transforming a culture that crosses many boundaries is no small task. “Most leaders want to give great service,” notes Kaufman. “Yet, for many reasons—not the least of which is how tough it is to get thousands of employees aligned in delivering consistent and outstanding service—many companies fail. Sometimes spectacularly.” The good news, says the service guru, is that even large companies with terrible service track records can turn service and, in turn, profitability around. Through his company, UP! Your Service, Kaufman deploys a proven methodology for helping big organizations make this powerful cultural shift. Over two decades, he has helped companies on every continent build a culture of uplifting service that delivers real business results year after year.

Kaufman is the author of The New York Times best-seller Uplifting Service and 14 other books on service, business, and inspiration. An exuberantly positive and insightful man into human behaviour and psyche, he is today one of the world’s most sought-after educator, thought leader and speaker on the topic of achieving superior service. Two of his biggest clients are Singapore Airlines and Changi Airport, arguably global leaders in customer service delivery. So, how do they do it? “Singapore Airlines closely tracks the industry standard and continuously exceeds it,” he says. “They never rest on their laurels and are constantly finding ways to surprise and delight the customer.” With regards to Changi, Kaufman notes that while serving over 50 million visitors each year (more than seven times the national population), it has become one of the busiest airports in the world, and the first place where millions of visitors make their impression of this small island nation. “Many customers today call Changi a total 5-star experience. And this is because of the vision of its management to embrace and instill an impeccable service culture,” notes Kaufman.

Changi’s management has, over the years, worked closely with Kaufman to institutionalize a culture for consistently extraordinary service. To passengers, this includes unstintingly helpful, efficient and cheerful staff, lush indoor gardens, an unsurpassed airport shopping experience, children’s play areas and shining, clean terminals. This atmosphere has been enabled, behind the scenes, says Kaufman, through a strong leadership committed to service excellence, clear role-modelling, full-staff training and recognition programmes that make Changi stand out above others globally.

“In one of the most competitive eras of the global economy, great service is the price of admission,” says Kaufman. “Companies whose cultures aren’t built around the eagerness to delight the customer won’t survive”.

Do cultures differ in how they define and deliver service?

Different countries have different service standards and expectations. For example, Americans tend to be gregarious and outgoing while the English tend to be more conservative and reserved. These are cultural standards that shape different expectations. So are some cultures better at delivering service than others? The answer to this question is not in the standards or expectations of the country but in the country’s willingness to be curious about and sensitive to what other people truly appreciate.

What do you make of India’s service culture?

It is good but can be much better. The key question is whether Indian service providers can become more curious about their customers, more open to learning about their customers, more sensitive to their customers’ wants, needs, and expectations. Are Indian service providers willing to adapt and adjust the service they provide to deliver something the customer truly appreciates or values? When you look at service in this way, India has a tremendous service potential for the future.

What do you see as India’s biggest hurdle in becoming a world-class service provider?

With an enormous number of talented people in the market, there is a common sense that talent is replaceable, and customers are, too. So employers, currently don’t put as much effort into attracting, retaining and growing their employees as their counterparts do in other developed countries. There seems to be an ease or an acceptance that people come and go and someone new is always coming. But over a long term, the danger of this view is that people do come and go, and the human resource department focuses on getting more new hires rather than retaining the best people. A similar problem exists in relation to providing customer service. With so many people to serve as potential customers, companies don’t put in as much effort to retain the loyalty of those they have. Continuous customer churn tends to be the norm, while providing truly excellent customer service is the rare exception.

What is India’s inherent strength in delivering world-class service and how can this be harnessed?

Indian culture cherishes education and we need powerful service education in the companies, in the labour force, and even in the government. And Indians are always curious; they want to know, want to understand, want to enquire and learn more. If we can turn this passion and curiosity into a desire to understand the people we serve—our customers, colleagues, suppliers and each other—we will have the fundamental ingredients for outstanding service success.

What are some of the critical lessons companies can learn today in upgrading their service culture to an extraordinary level?

The first lesson is that employees and colleagues are customers, too. You can’t serve one without serving the other. Second lesson is that you go big, go fast, and touch everyone quickly. Incremental or piloted approaches don’t work well when you’re seeking a revolutionary shift in service culture. You must engage the entire workforce quickly and aggressively to get everyone excited about service and to prevent outdated behaviours and mindsets from resurfacing and breaking the momentum. Third, don’t focus on tasks. Focus on meaning.

What is service, anyways? I define it as taking action to create value for someone else. But what person A values, person B may not. One customer might want to make small talk when you bring her coffee, another might want to be left alone to read the newspaper, and still another might need you to notice that her child is getting restless and offer him a colouring book. You need to understand what value is to that specific customer and deliver it accordingly.

Fourth, you can expect resistance internally as a leader. But you have to keep pushing or risk losing the market.

Fifth, there is great power in your inherent culture. Harness it. The idea is to find out what your organization’s inherent culture is and accentuate the positives of it. You can’t reinvent it completely. If it is not a natural extension of who you already are, your culture shift won’t work. Sixth, let the kudos flow. Employees want to know that customers appreciate the service they’re providing. Compliments are highly motivating and inspire employees to keep coming up with newer and better service ideas.

Sixth, let the kudos flow. Employees want to know that customers appreciate the service they’re providing. Compliments are highly motivating and inspire employees to keep coming up with newer and better service ideas.

So, is service excellence an achievable goal for most global companies?

Service excellence is a journey, not a destination. It is not a one-off benchmark that sometimes companies think it is. You have to keep upping the ante. Customers get accustomed to a certain level of service, so you have to step it up to the next level, and then the next. I like to use the escalator analogy: in the eyes of customers, your level of service is always going down relative to their expectations. Since their expectations are always increasing, and competitors match what you are doing, you must keep stepping it up. And you must keep doing it sooner, faster, and more often than your competition.

By Preeti Darwa/LiveMint/November, 2014