We asked Gerry Brown to tell us a little about his Four Principles of Customer Service (CX [Customer Experience]). Culture, Commitment, Community and Communication. There is always room for new ideas, and building a better foundation usually happens when we are open to new ideas and thoughts shared. We hope you enjoy the Four Principles journey with Gerry. In this Blog we explore the first principle: Culture.
When it came to understanding more about how, where and why CX was so effective and important, I looked closer at some of the companies that really do have customer experience working for them, and found strong evidence of the Four Principles that are vital to the development and sustainability of a Customer Experience program. Just as a reminder these are; Culture, Commitment, Community and Communication. The power of these principles, both individually and in combination, is that they are founded on deep, basic truths that have broad and enduring applications. When integrated into our daily lives they provide a context and a framework that can mobilize people to develop the understanding, skills and patience to handle almost any situation. This is what it takes to bring home the bacon and is way beyond ‘lipstick on the pig’. You can’t pick these up at the cosmetic counter.
These Four Principles are simple and each is intentionally represented by just a single word that very much mirrors the important and real-life values, and how we approach the world as individuals. They can be, and are, used by all of us every day in our interactions with others; when we hold open doors, support worthy causes, apologize unreservedly and sometimes unnecessarily (in the UK and Canada) and (occasionally) smile at strangers. In a customer service environment, you really can’t make people do what they don’t want to do, or at least you can’t do it indefinitely or with everyone.
Any discussion involving principles and natural law will undoubtedly uncover a full complement of ideas and concepts that can apply to almost any eventuality. While we may all have slightly different interpretations of these specific principles, I also believe that there is universal awareness and understanding of their value, their relevance and their importance to the survival and growth of any business.
Let’s look closer at Culture, the first principle in our customer experience journey.
The Four Principals -1. Culture
Culture, especially customer-focused corporate culture, isn’t something you can mandate, although that hasn’t stopped many CEOs from trying. Without a customer-focused culture, organizations can never truly achieve a strong customer experience. It’s often the missing element for companies that continue to lose the plot when it comes to customer experience. Your culture is effectively the bedrock of your company. It is a set of shared beliefs, values and practices that are developed from the inside out and based on additional, complimentary principles such as fairness, courtesy and empathy.
The key word here is ‘shared’, and by doing that you create an environment where it is real, actionable and constantly under review. Businesses that continue to be successful financially, reputationally and have a strong ethical workforce have almost assuredly done it by involving everyone in the endeavour. Just like other life affirming actions, corporate culture is very much founded on a discipline and a set of behaviours and skills that are defined, refined and guarded by the very people responsible for delivery on the company’s customer promises. Jack Ewing notes in his book Faster, Higher, Farther, “Corporate culture is never written down; it’s just what everyone knows.”
While, as I noted, culture can’t be mandated, it does need authentic leadership and support from the top to really make it sustainable and reflective of the organization’s values and purpose. This doesn’t just mean a snappy corporate video with the CEO telling everyone that “Customers are at the heart of everything we do”, although visible, constant reminders are important. An environment where the senior leadership is consistently engaged and actively models the attitudes and behaviours the company expects from the whole company and aligns with the values and hard-won reputation. To quote Jack Ewing again, “Employees will not always do what is right, that it’s up to management to set an example.”
Setting that example and engaging the whole company can take many forms, but, as with many things, frequent, honest two-way communication is a key element to ensure vigilance and ongoing awareness of customer and colleague issues that can signal any negative shift in culture. The key elements are having employees that are both encouraged and rewarded for identifying customer issues, and senior managers who share company decisions and direction that can be influenced and informed by employee feedback and intervention.
I’ve recently seen posts and comments on social media suggesting that businesses shouldn’t necessarily model themselves on successful companies such as Amazon, Apple, John Lewis and other customer experience stalwarts. While I recognize that Joe Bloggs Plumbing may have different challenges from the ‘big boys’, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t lessons to be learned, ideas and innovation to be tested. After all, the recipients of the services from businesses, large and small, are all still people like us.
When you first rally the troops and start down the principle path in your initial cross-functional team meeting, there are two simple exercises to help you to get a strong sense of the current state of customer experience environment, and the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. These are not particularly unique to customer experience, but have probably been used successfully by many of you in other programs.
First, rank each of the four principles from 0-5 in relation to the company. There are no specific guidelines attached to the rationale behind the ranking. The numbers, especially if low and the resulting dialogue pave the way for deeper introspection and a broader journey of discovery as the workshop develops. But, let me give you a word of warning; if done right with honesty, candour and a broad cross-section of participants, it can make for some painful and awkward moments, as any serious introspection will. But you must persevere. The end results will be worthwhile and new, stronger, internal relationships will develop that will inform and guide the customer experience framework and sustain the longer-term strategy.
Then use the Stop – Start – More – Less technique, favoured by many business and personal coaches. This requires that you take an honest and candid view of your processes, policies and other operational activities and determine which of the four actions need to be taken. This is applied to the same principles from a business, department and personal perspective and uncovers some extraordinarily valuable insights. Then, the results from both exercises are linked in a grid and the resulting output identifies the most pressing needs, the most valued cultural possessions and where to start the overall process. Once again, this will turn an occasionally bright spotlight on people and processes as you discover there are no good reasons for doing certain things and nobody, especially customers, really benefits.
So, to help guide us through this process, let’s look at few people who are doing this well.
While the decision to create an uncompromising customer centric culture often comes, or is influenced from the top, everyone can and should play a role in consistently delivering the company’s customer service culture. In the case of Zappos, the online retailer who has taken customer experience to new levels, it wasn’t just Tony Hsieh, the CEO, and his senior team; all of the employees have always had a strong voice, and are directly responsible for designing the core values on which their service culture is built. Their yearly Culture Book is a consistent and evolving testament to the strength and durability of this approach.
Tony Hsieh articulately and succinctly captures the upside of starting with culture in his book Delivering Happiness:
“At Zappos, our belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff – like great customer service, or building a long-term brand or passionate employees and customers – will happen naturally on its own.” While Zappos have clearly benefitted from the effect of osmosis, I still believe it’s necessary to orchestrate and blend the other three principles in equal measures to be able to create the harmony and play the music that keeps customers singing and dancing happily to your tune. Alas, many businesses forget this and, like Eric Morecambe, are playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order.
Four Seasons is now a world-famous luxury hotel brand, highly regarded for its culture of excellence. But as with many other successful businesses, it came from humble beginnings. Isadore Sharpe, the CEO and founder, launched the business with the Four Seasons Motor Hotel in Toronto. That’s right, a motel! But it wasn’t the ‘no tell motel’. This was a very different one, born from the principle of developing a culture where guests’ comfort and the employee’s ability to make that happen, drove all other decisions. Growing up in Toronto in the sixties, I have fond memories of the profound changes that it drove in Canada, not just from a hotel service perspective, but in most other aspects of business and customer service.
We get an insight into his approach in the title of his book; Four Seasons – The Story of a Business Philosophy. As with Stephen Covey, I found Mr Sharpe’s words inspirational. He provides validation and endless examples for the Four Principles. Throughout the book there are recurring themes of building a culture of quality and service, earning the commitment of managers and staff, creating a community of guests, employees and managers, all supported by frequent, open and honest communications. It clearly shows that this can be a business model for all companies, large and small, not just luxury hotel brands.
A visit to the John Lewis website sums up the importance of culture very simply and succinctly: “Our Partners will tell you that the John Lewis Partnership is a very special place to work. We believe our distinctive culture – our spirit – lies at the heart of this feeling.”
It goes on to say, “The John Lewis Partnership has a visionary and successful way of doing business, putting the happiness of Partners at the centre of everything it does. It’s the embodiment of an ideal, the outcome of nearly a century of endeavour to create a different sort of company, owned by Partners dedicated to serving customers with flair and fairness.” If this was something that was very new, then it’s possible that the sceptics among us may suggest that it can’t last.” But the partnership model, and the values it embodies, was introduced in 1929 and has stood the test of many challenging times and changes in both the retail market and the wider world.
HomeServe, one of the UK’s leading home assistance providers introduced their Customer First program in 2015. It was aimed at identifying customer situations where front line employees felt that the customer deserved a better outcome and it and it is now part of the fabric of the business. Over two thousand submissions to the program have been made, demonstrating what engaged and committed colleagues can do and allowing the front-line people to really own and influence the Customer experience.
Customer First has also played a key role in implementing many of the other elements of business strategy. The submissions were categorized as either ‘Good Neighbour’ or ‘Business Improvement’. Based on that feedback, this information guided the investment in process re-engineering and technology to reduce customer effort and make life easier for front line specialists and engineers to drive more value for customers. This also had a positive impact in reducing the cost base by eliminating unworkable policies, reducing waste and driving overall efficiencies, and yet still continues to build a strong and identifiably ethical company culture.
Look out for the next issue: Commitment
About the Author
Gerry Brown aka The Customer Lifeguard, is on a mission to save the world from bad customer service. He helps businesses save customers at risk of defecting and breathes life into their customer service operations and customer experience strategy. Gerry provides straight talking, no-nonsense advice and practical solutions for customer experience adoption and has provided organizational leadership on people development, business transformation, customer engagement and technology enablement for some of the largest companies in the UK, Canada, and EMEA. These include Autoglass, The Royal Albert Hall, O2, Screwfix, Sage, BSkyB, Bell Canada and TELUS. Gerry is a Member of the Professional Speaking Association (PSA), the Global Speakers Federation (GSF), the Customer Experience Professionals Association and a Certified Customer Experience Professional (CCXP). Check out Gerry’s book: When A Customer Wins, Nobody Loses!: A winning formula for building lasting customer relationships.