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Creating a Customer-Focused Culture

Creating a Customer-Focused Culture

Creating a Customer-Focused Culture

Does your culture support the behaviors to deliver great service?

There has been a lot of buzz lately about culture in the industry trade news (including Pipeline), as well as the general business media, conferences and in social media discussions. It seemed fitting when Merriam-Webster recently announced that culture was its 2014 word of the year.

The decision was based on the number of lookups in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. The editors at the American English dictionary publisher pointed out that the increased use of the word to describe the “typical habits, attitudes and behaviors of a group” has captured people’s attention and helped to drive the volume of lookups.

In the corporate world, culture has been a fairly fuzzy concept, so it’s understandable that people would be seeking to define it. Ask employees in various functions of your organization what they think culture means—or to define your company’s culture—and you’re likely to get a wide range of responses.

What Is an Effective Culture?

In a business sense, culture is defined (by Merriam-Webster) as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” But the key to the culture is not simply having a set of core values—it’s the expected behaviors that are attached to those values, says Tim Kuppler, director of culture and organization development for organizational culture consulting firm Human Synergistics International, author of “Build the Culture Advantage,” and co-founder of the workplace culture educational website CultureUniversity.com.

While an organization’s core values are initially created by its leaders, every employee will interpret those values from his or her own perspective, Kuppler points out. The qualities and principles typically included in corporate core values, like integrity, teamwork, innovation and accountability, will have unique meanings for each individual. “The key is to engage the entire organization in the language that you’ll use to define your values so that you can connect it to the expected behaviors,” he says. (See the sidebar, “Keeping Core Values Top of Mind,” for an example of a collaborative effort to create core values.)

That is also a good exercise to keep in mind when establishing a customer-centric culture. If your goal is to create a companywide mindset in which every single employee is focused on delivering an excellent customer experience, the first step is to develop a definition that is clear, attainable and shared by every function.

UP! Your Service Founder and Chairman Ron Kaufman, author of “Uplifting Service,” offers a process for defining a service excellence culture. He advises leaders to ask employees across the organization to answer the following questions:

What is “service”? That might seem like a no-brainer for customer service and contact center leaders, but your frontline staff and other functions in your organization—especially those in non-customer-facing roles—will likely have very different responses to this question.

Kaufman defines it this way: Service is taking action to create value for someone else. “With that definition, every single position in the company becomes a service position—because there is no position that exists within an organization whose purpose, ultimately, is not to create an outcome that is needed by someone else,” he says. “Asking this question is an important first step to getting all of the internal non-customer-facing departments to recognize that they are all in customer service. Their job is to create value for the people they serve and, in many cases, that is their colleagues in customer-facing roles.”

What is “excellence”? In most organizations, excellence is defined by specific performance levels, rankings or ratings. But Kaufman argues that excellence is the action of improvement—which is essential in today’s business environment where expectations are continuously rising. “Excellence is stepping up to the next level,” he says. “It’s the focus and intention of doing better than you’re doing now.”

Using Kaufman’s definition, even low and average performers can demonstrate excellence by improving their performance—for instance, by moving from poor to average, or average to good.

What is a “service excellence culture”? Combining the two concepts can produce the type of culture where each individual recognizes that the purpose of his or her job is to create value for someone else, and they’re constantly looking for ways to create more value. Kaufman adds: “When everybody in an organization recognizes that and embraces it, that is a service excellence culture.”

Models for Creating a Successful Culture

There are a variety of models for creating or transforming a workplace culture, but experts agree that culture must be approached as a long-term commitment, not a one-time project with a beginning and end. Sustaining the culture requires alignment of the organization’s internal processes and systems, such as hiring, staff development, process improvement, recognition, etc. (See the sidebar, “Taking a Long-Term View of Culture Change.”)

Kaufman likens it to the art of marionette puppetry, with the company’s processes, programs and practices representing different characters on the stage. “You’ve got to work with all of them together over time, and keep them all going to keep the culture alive. The moment you take your eye off one, a lot of the characters on the stage can begin to collapse pretty quickly.”

Build a solid Foundation for Service Excellence

In “Uplifting Service,” Kaufman examines the framework for building a culture that values service as a differentiator. He uses the analogy of culture as a house, explaining that, “You need to build an environment in which your people can come to work and be uplifted, motivated and reinforced to serve each other well.”

The foundation for the culture is service education that can be put into action. This is not the same as training, Kaufman stresses. Service education focuses on the fundamental service principles that each individual can apply to his or her own job, whatever that role or function is. “Rather than just focusing on the mechanics of giving good service, you have to teach people the meaning of giving good service first, and then you can provide the mechanics,” he says. “Too many companies treat human beings like robots by just focusing on the scripts, procedures, standards and KPIs. If you don’t give them a better understanding of the meaning and purpose, then you’re not laying a solid foundation for the culture of the organization.”

Just as the roof provides coverage for everything inside the house, service leadership supplies protection for the company culture. Service leaders are not just those in the service department or contact center, but every person in the organization who is in a leadership position. Kaufman has identified seven rules of service leadership, which are based upon the behaviors of leaders of world-class service organizations around the world. These include principles such as: Declare service a top priority; Be a great role model; Promote a common service language; and Remove the roadblocks to better service.

In between the culture’s foundation (education) and roof (leadership behavior), lie Kaufman’s 12 building blocks of service culture. “There are 12 areas of activity that take place in major organizations, such as recruitment and orientation of new staff, recognition programs, communication programs, recovery policies, improvement processes, voice of the customer capture mechanisms, measures and metrics, etc. The way that these activities are aligned and connected to each other is what creates the power that surrounds the culture,” he says.

Inside the organization, the 12 building blocks need to work closely together so that employees feel surrounded by support. “They are constantly being encouraged, reinforced, supported and promoted so that they’re able to provide consistently great service. The culture helps them to keep it top of mind. If they ever slip, the culture is there to support them. It uplifts them and it motivates them,” Kaufman explains.

The Journey to a Performance-Based Culture

Kuppler’s model, which he explains in his book, “Build the Culture Advantage,” is based on a culture roadmap, which stems from a “define, align and manage” framework.

The journey begins by defining one or two performance priorities, which may be problems, challenges or goals. Next, your team sets out to identify how the company culture impacts those priorities. Discussions would consider: What are the outcomes we’re looking for? What aren’t we seeing now, and how is culture impacting that? What are the strengths in our current process? If we had to zero in on just one or two weaknesses, what would they be?

Working with your team to define the issues will help to highlight the areas of the organization that need to be aligned and connected to expected behaviors in a sustainable way, Kuppler explains. “Some of them are very obvious things like strategies, goals, measures,” he says. “For instance, are goals and measures defined in a way that achieves customer service and the results that the company desires, as well as the specific behaviors that you want to build in your organization over time?”

That is the step that leaders often sidestep, he says. They move straight to strategies and goals, but not with the intent to build a very specific behavior. For example, let’s say you identified collaboration as a performance priority because company leaders feel that they’re not seeing enough collaboration among functions and departments. Setting goals for each department is not going to improve collaboration unless you first consider how you will tie it to individual and team development, how to coach behavior throughout the organization and how to tie it into the hiring and develop systems so that you can sustain it as people come and go.

“Many times, organizations will start this process and get some momentum, but they don’t layer on the individual and team development, and they don’t layer on all the systems that are needed to really sustain it,” Kuppler says.

Working Within the Center

All of this discussion about changing the culture sounds great, but isn’t that the executive leadership’s job? Not so, Kuppler says. He points out that the fundamentals of define, align and manage can be successfully applied to any type of work team. “Teams are subcultures with behavior that’s also driven by cultural rules,” he points out.

Kuppler has simplified the fundamentals of define, align and manage into what he calls the WE WIN framework, which can be used a starting point for performance-based culture change within teams or departments. It’s an acronym that represents key points of consideration on the culture roadmap:

  • Why is the team approach being implemented?
  • What are the expectations for all team members?
  • What improvement actions will we prioritize and manage?
  • Inspire and support each other through coaching and recognition.
  • Numbers—focus on measurable results!

“If you go through this process and do not see progress in the measurements, then continue the WIN cycle, changing your ‘what’ actions in some form as a team until you start seeing those behaviors have an impact,” Kuppler explains. “Hopefully, your successes will capture the attention of higher-ups who will want to do the same thing on a larger scale.”

Susan Hash

Susan Hash

Susan Hash served as Editorial Director of Contact Center Pipeline magazine and the Pipeline blog from 2009-2021. She is a veteran business journalist with over 30 years of specialized experience writing about customer care and contact centers.
Twitter: @susanhash

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