When attempting to change your company’s approach to customer service, one expert suggests a fast and furious approach over easing into things.
You know you have 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. 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.
According to Ron Kaufman, author of the New York Times bestseller Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues and Everyone Else You Meet (www.UpliftingService.com), 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 boldly and get the message out to everyone quickly.
“Creating a superior service culture throughout an organization is like getting a new rocket into orbit,” Kaufman says. “You need a massive and focused effort at the beginning to overcome the gravity of old attitudes and behaviors. Soon after your first new service successes, you need another enormous booster to get into a sustainable orbit.
“The effort is well worth the results,” he adds. “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, Kaufman says. It’s how you deal with those obstacles that counts.
“Companies sometimes receive push back from employees and even high-level leaders,” he says. “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,” Kaufman adds.
That’s where Uplifting Service comes in. Rather than sit back and wait for others to “go first,” the book suggests employees—whether they’re in the C-suite or a cluttered cubicle—change the game from their level and position.
Go Beyond the Customer-Service Team
Don’t start only with customer-facing teams, which may seem like the obvious move. 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,” explains Kaufman. “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 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 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,’” Kaufman says. “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.”
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, says Kaufman. “But starting in the middle won’t work either,” he adds. “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.”
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,” suggests Kaufman. “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.”
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,” advises Kaufman. “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.”
Keep your aim on the right bull’s-eye. Kaufman writes 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 nine out of 10 for leading a wonderful class became a cause for celebration,” Kaufman says. “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,” he says.
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 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 are eager to participate and to succeed.
“For deeply cynical, resentful or unwilling employees, there are two successful options,” Kaufman says. “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.”
He continues, “When transforming an existing service culture, you have to get everyone involved in new, swift action to make the change really happen,” Kaufman continues. “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.”
This article was submitted on behalf of Ron Kaufman, the author of the New York Times bestseller Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues and Everyone Else You Meet (www.UpliftingService.com). He is the founder of UP! Your Service, a global service education and management consultancy firm with offices in the United States and Singapore.