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Why a Customer Service Revolution Must be Fast and Furious

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. Below, Ron shares his tips to building an uplifting service culture to keep your business on the path to success:

You know you’ve got unhappy customers so you’ve decided it’s time to do a complete service overhaul. You’ve spent hours with your C-level executives crafting a strategic plan and making sure your i’s are dotted and your t’s are crossed. The idea is to roll out the new plan in one area of your company—for example, your call center—and get things under control there before you move on to the next department. Over time, as you get your strategy perfected and everyone buys in, you’ll surely reap the benefits. Makes sense, right?

Sorry, but that’s no way to start a revolution. When you’re transforming a company culture to be more service-focused and effective, you have to move more boldly and get the message out to everyone more quickly. You don’t have time to let culture change drip down to the masses or bubble up from the bottom in one or two departments. You must cascade your transformational effort in a much wider and deeper effort from the beginning.

Creating a superior service culture throughout an organization is like getting a new rocket into orbit. You need a massive and focused effort at the beginning to overcome the gravity of old attitudes and behaviors. And soon after your first new service successes, you need another enormous booster to keep momentum going and get into a sustainable orbit.

The results are well worth the efforts. When people at all levels and departments throughout an organization step up together—at the same time—to deliver better service, then full engagement occurs and the culture “tips” into a new and better direction.

Of course, there will be obstacles along the way. It’s how you deal with those obstacles that counts.

Companies sometimes receive push back from employees and even high-level leaders. Without the right framework for building an uplifting service culture, as laid out in my book, a company’s transformation will slow to a halt and nothing much will change. Good customers will leave, and often high-performing employees will head for the door.

Seven lessons to keep your efforts on the track to success

1. Don’t start only with customer-facing teams. Starting your service transformation with customer-facing team members might seem like the obvious move. But if your objective is to build an uplifting service culture, this approach can be very problematic. Because your people in “customer-facing” roles interact with customers daily, they already understand that service is important. They know that upset customers complain. They know happy customers are easier to serve. What they don’t know is how to fix the behind-the-scenes issues that often affect the customers’ perceptions.

When you provide new service education, greater encouragement, and more recognition for customer-facing teams like sales, installation, repair, or customer service, they will be inspired to serve better, smile wider, and strive even harder to delight. But at some point, they will start to wonder how they can give customers better service if their colleagues do not give them better service.

When launching an uplifting service program, it would be much better to include or begin with internal service providers: production and design, hardware and software, warehousing and logistics, facilities, finance, legal, IT, and HR. When these internal service providers make things easier, faster, more responsive, or more flexible for your customer-facing employees, they’ll be surprised, delighted, and better able to serve your external customers. Let those on the inside inspire those who are serving on the outside with better service first. It’s a proven win-win situation.

2. Launch at all levels. Starting from the top with an uplifting service initiative makes sense. When high-level leaders speak up and role model with commitment, it’s easier for everyone else to follow—and take the lead at their own levels. However, a top-down approach on its own can leave your leaders in an uncomfortable position. When those at the top make the earliest efforts, they must wait for the cascade to see practical results. But a cascade does not happen overnight—and this lack of quick and observable impact can cause some leaders to get impatient and question whether the outcomes will happen at all.

At the same time, though, you must beware of launching from the bottom up without support from the top—the classic mistake of stand-alone “frontline service training programs.” It won’t take long before a motivated frontline service provider bumps into a supervisor or manager who does not share the understanding or the passion.

That’s what happened at a leading tour operator when it brought its frontline employees a novel campaign called “Be Service Entrepreneurs.” The objective was for staff members to make decisions as if they were the owners. One enthusiastic frontline service provider did just that. He chartered a plane to move customers along when the company’s tour bus broke down. It was a gutsy move his customers loved, but most of the company’s leaders had never heard of this frontline program and were not pleased with this result. The program was quickly retired as word spread throughout the company that “Be Service Entrepreneurs” was no longer supported.

3. Don’t forget the middle. Companies often decide to launch from the top down and from the bottom up at the same time. But doing so puts a great deal of responsibility on the people in the middle. In the top-down cascade, middle managers and supervisors must translate the messages in action, connect company objectives to frontline concerns, and make uplifting language appear practical and useful. In the bottom-up bubbling of new ideas and action steps, the middle plays three culture-building roles: praising team members who do a great job, raising good suggestions for higher-level review, and spotlighting roadblocks that require leadership action for removal.

In both instances, you’re asking a lot of your managers and supervisors.

But starting in the middle won’t work either. When leaders are not prepared to lead, and frontline employees are not prepared for action, then asking middle managers to start the journey alone is a formula for pure frustration. A top-down cascade brings commitment, alignment, and support. A bottom-up program stimulates new ideas and new actions. An activated middle connects, enables, and empowers. It’s best to prepare well and start with attention to all three.

4. Arm your leaders with helpful service hints. Most people who reach high leadership positions are experts in their industry. But rarely are they experts in building or leading a service culture. That means if you are one of the passionate and committed service heroes inside your organization, you may need to help your leaders lead. That means creating opportunities for them to walk the walk, talk the talk, and model uplifting service.

Invite your leaders to participate with you in customer meetings and focus groups. Ask them to help you recognize the company’s top-notch service providers with a visit, a handshake, a photograph, and a short speech. Keep them informed about the uplifting service transformation’s progress by providing short descriptions of service problems that have been recently solved, noting who worked on the problem, what they did to solve it, and how service was improved.

5. Go for easy wins first. The principles of uplifting service are so empowering and the practices so effective that some leaders push their teams to solve the most difficult and complex service problems right away. That’s a mistake to avoid. Warming up a machine before you go full throttle is good practice. Warming up your service team with a series of “early wins” is good practice, too.

When planning a sequence of service problems to tackle, take a gradual approach. Build momentum with early wins on easy issues. Let your team taste the pleasure of uplifting service success. Highlight achievements and celebrate the compliments you earn. Restrain the urge to work on your toughest problems first—their day to be conquered will come.

6. Stay vigilant. Keep your aim on the right bull’s-eye. I write about a client who launched a vigorous service improvement program to create greater value for external customers. Hundreds of classes were conducted for thousands of service champions around the world. But something unusual happened as the program rolled out. Rather than focus on identified external business targets—reclaiming market share, rebuilding a slipping reputation, bouncing back in recovery situations, etc.—earning high internal course evaluations became the course leaders’ primary focus.

Scoring 9 out of 10 for leading a wonderful class became a cause for celebration. That’s a great score, but a very different bull’s-eye. Eventually this lack of alignment with the program’s original goals became painfully apparent. The focus had drifted away from the early goals, and the entire program needed to refocus. Don’t let this drifting happen to you. A clear bull’s-eye that delivers value to others should always be at the center of your efforts, well articulated and understood by everyone involved.

7. Watch out for stuck-in-the-mud team members. Some hard-nosed managers will challenge a new program by sending their most cynical and problematic employees. Their view is, “If a new program can work on these tough nuts, then perhaps it has some merit.” But the opposite approach will work much better. What you want in the early days of your journey is good feelings, good results, and good gossip. That comes more easily from participants who want to participate and are eager to succeed.

There is an old saying that “A rising tide lifts all boats.” This is also true when building an uplifting service culture—except for those who are stuck in the mud. Practicing generous action raises everyone to a higher level—except those who will not budge. For deeply cynical, resentful, or unwilling employees, there are two successful options. First, they may come to see the light and climb on board for an unfamiliar but uplifting ride. And second, they may feel so out of place as everyone else moves ahead, they no longer feel welcome, and leave. For the success of your organization, either outcome is welcome.

When transforming an existing service culture, you have to get everyone involved in new, swift action to make the change really happen. What you need is a service revolution, not gradual evolution. A timid program with small starts and scattered efforts won’t work. You need a bold and uplifting revolution that gives everyone a role to play, and counts on everyone to make the future—a better future—into a service reality today.

By Ron Kaufman/January, 2015