By Gerry Brown
What separates those brands that deliver great customer experience from the rest? What qualities are consistently present and what can we learn from them?
When it came to understanding more about how, where and why CX was so effective and important for my book When A Customer Wins, Nobody Loses!, I looked closer at some of the companies that really do have customer experience working for them, and found strong evidence of Four Principles that are vital to the development and sustainability of a customer experience program: Culture, Commitment, Community and Communication.
Let’s look closer and see how these principles relate to, and inspire, our customer experience journey.
Your culture is effectively the bedrock of your company. It is a set of shared beliefs, values, and practices that is 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.”
Let’s look at few people who have done 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 took customer experience to new levels, it wasn’t just Tony Hsieh, the former 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 captured 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.”
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.”
Senior executive ownership, on an on-going and visibly participatory basis, is a vital element in demonstrating commitment.
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.
2. Commitment throughout the company
Getting the culture right is a key cornerstone in the foundations of customer experience, but unless and until there is commitment throughout the company, it won’t have the staying power or game changing influence on the company’s DNA to ensure that customer experience is a living, breathing organism and not just an empty promise or a marketing slogan. As with culture, senior executive ownership, on an on-going and visibly participatory basis, is a vital element in demonstrating commitment.
In his book about Ritz Carlton Hotels, The New Gold Standard, Joseph Michelli told us about a general manager who endured fourteen interviews to land his role. Four were with the owners of the hotel, but ten were with other front line staff members who saw that their commitment to quality included having a voice in who joins them as colleagues. This commitment is also visibly and measurably apparent in the fact that any employee has the ability to spend up to $2,000 to satisfy a customer need, without referral to a senior manager, or fear of reprisal.
American author and business guru Stephen Covey pointedly said: “No involvement, no commitment” and goes on “Many organizations have people whose goals are totally different from the goals of the enterprise with reward systems that are completely out of alignment with stated value systems.”
Another way to look at this is to see if business leaders are committed to having customer experience metrics that determine how everyone in the organisation is measured and paid, as American Express has done.
Jim Bush, former president global network at American Express, put this principle into practice very effectively and measurably. His team of customer service people, known as customer care professionals, were part of a measurement system that surveyed the customer and got the feedback for every servicing transaction which is used that measure their performance, complemented by some productivity indicators.
Those two measures were used to drive incentives that were the basis for compensation for the customer care professionals, and indeed all of the management team. This not only led to increasingly happy customers, but has also contributed handsomely to the bottom line at American Express.
3. Creating a community
In customer experience terms, community resides comfortably and symbiotically with the other three principles. It is dependent on intertwining and bringing together the different parts of an organisation to agree common goals, and ways of achieving them, in a spirit of cooperation and collaboration.
When a business is successful in creating this internal spirit of community, then extending it to customers, partners and the wider geographic community just feels like a natural and rewarding thing to do.
Waitrose (John Lewis Partnership)
When you look at almost any UK customer satisfaction survey, you can always expect to see John Lewis and Waitrose high on the list. John Lewis is not only highly regarded reputationally, but is also highly profitable and the clue to why they are so successful is in the name “The John Lewis Partnership.”
When a business is successful in creating this internal spirit of community, then extending it to customers just feels like a natural and rewarding thing to do.
John Spedan Lewis, the founder’s son, introduced the first profit-sharing scheme in 1920 along with a representative staff council. These ‘radical ideas’ were based on seven basic principles which are still the driving force behind the company today and are prominently featured on the company’s website. Their definition of community is that “The Partnership aims to obey the spirit as well as the letter of the law and to contribute to the wellbeing of the communities where it operates.” What part of this wouldn’t appeal to any right thinking and ambitious organization?
Shep Hyken, in his book Amaze Every Customer Every Time, features Ace Hardware as a great example of an extremely successful, but perhaps little-known company whose community spirit is legendary. This has made it stand out against many of its larger, perhaps better known DIY rivals in the US such as Lowes and Home Depot, and outpaces them in terms of revenue, reputation and employee growth. While primarily a US organisation, they also have operations in much of Latin America and Asia, and wherever they go they make a profound and lasting impact on the community. In the USA since 1991, the Ace Foundation has raised over $54 million to help sick and injured kids.
The Ace store owner is totally focused on clearly identifying and standing out within their customer community, and being helpful for each and every person in that community. Their reward for this commitment is being ranked highest in customer satisfaction among home improvement retailers for a several consecutive years in the JD Power and Associates surveys.
4. Successful communication
A lack of communication is why many businesses fail so spectacularly. These often self-inflicted operational failures are usually accompanied by news stories featuring angry customers complaining of “There being nobody to let us know what was going on.”
Proactivity is the key to successful communication and even if there is no news, it’s vital to let people know that at least somebody is aware of the issue and is seeking a resolution. In order to keep customers happy, it helps if your people are able to respond in a powerful and immediate way to service failures — using their own initiative, without waiting for a manager’s okay.
It’s possible though that people are not really in the position to use their initiative, or are prevented from doing so. But communicating with passengers, customers or guests is very much dependent on a company having an open and honest communication policy that builds trust, and provides reinforcement for employees to act with integrity and compassion in those critical moments of truth that can define a great customer experience.
Companies like Four Seasons, Zappos and John Lewis all feature regular two-way feedback sessions, employee briefings and councils, that give all employees and managers a voice in any decisions or issues that positively affect the quality of customer care. When employees have been involved in defining and developing the culture and committing to its delivery, having them act in harmony with the values and principles they helped create and communicate is almost second nature.
In order to keep customers happy, it helps if your people are able to respond in a powerful and immediate way to service failures — using their own initiative, without waiting for a manager’s okay.
In each Four Seasons hotel there is a centrally located hotline that allows front line staff to immediately communicate any customer problems as they arise.
At John Lewis, power in the partnership is shared between three governing authorities: the Partnership Council, the Partnership Board and the Chairman. This ensures that communication is open, frequent, visible and truly participatory throughout the business.
Once again, I’ll turn to Stephen Covey to describe the theme that runs through the communication principle of successful and caring companies. He says “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Most companies are so busy with the second part, which is certainly important, that they neglect or pay lip service to the first.
This is an abridged extract from ‘When A Customer Wins, Nobody Loses!’ by Gerry Brown.
By Gerry Brown
Gerry Brown, 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 has provided organizational leadership on people development, business transformation, customer engagement and…