Overhauling Company Culture

When looking to revolutionize the way your company delivers customer service, make it happen fast and furiously, and everywhere at once.

OK. 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 effort is well worth the results. When people at all levels and departments throughout an organization step up together—at the same time—to deliver better service, 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 pushback from employees and even high-level leaders. Without the right framework for building an uplifting service culture, a company’s transformation will slow to a halt and nothing much will change. Good customers will leave, and high-performing employees will often head for the door.
The remedies? Here are a few lessons learned the hard way—to uplift service on the right track.
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, those people will be inspired to serve better. Yet, at some point, they will start to wonder how they can give customers better service if their own colleagues don’t give them better service.
As a result, 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.
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 doesn’t 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 doesn’t share the understanding or the passion.
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 aren’t prepared to lead, and frontline employees aren’t prepared for action, 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.
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.
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.
Stay FOCUSED. Keep your aim on the right bull’s-eye. There was 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, such as reclaiming market share, rebuilding a slipping reputation, bouncing back in recovery situations, the course leaders’ primary focus became earning high internal course evaluations. 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.
Watch out for stuck-in-the-mud team members. Some hardnosed 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 that 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.