Building a Service Culture, an interview with Ron Kaufman
This interview was first posted by our friends at the keynote speaker agency www.Speaking.com
Far from being a slave, the service provider is the most valuable person of all, because they are the source that is generating the value.
Far from being a slave, the service provider
is the most valuable person of all, because
they are the source that is generating the value.
SPEAKING.COM:There are various clichés tied to customer service. Which phrases do you find misleading and why?
RON KAUFMAN: The first is, “The customer is always right” – something that we know is not true. Sometimes customers get confused. They may exaggerate things and have even been known to lie.
A good alternative to that cliché is, “Always make the customer feel right, even when they’re wrong.” Even when someone’s not correct, you can always make them feel right about the importance of what they value. If a customer complains that your service is slow, even if you do the research and find out that it was not, you can still agree with them on the importance of speed and be the person to offer to take care of them right away. If they say your staff was rude, you can say, “You’ve got a very good point. Courtesy and respect are incredibly important. Allow me the privilege of taking care of you.”
Another misleading phrase is, “The customer is king.” What is the service provider, then? A slave?
If you understand the definition of “service,” you know quite the contrary is true. Service is taking action to create value for someone else – an outcome that’s beneficial, positive, wanted, needed, hoped for or desired by someone else. That could be an external customer, client, an internal colleague, an employee, or even your boss.
What is the source of value? The service provider! So far from being the slave, the service provider is the most valuable person of all, because they are the source that is generating the value.
SPEAKING.COM: What practices do companies with world-class service have in common?
RON KAUFMAN: This speaks directly to the area that I’m best known for around the world: developing “uplifting service cultures.” No matter what industry or country world-class service companies are from – whether it’s Disney, Zappos, Apple, Amazon.com, Ritz-Carlton, Singapore Airlines or Changi International Airport (the best airport in the world) – these top companies have built a culture of service which not only provides a foundation of service principles, workshops, and opportunities for education, but also provides leadership behavior, role modeling, and leaders who enable and empower their team.
Furthermore, these companies incorporate what I call the “12 Building Blocks of Uplifting Service Culture.” They don’t only focus on the point of contact with the customer. They focus on building a culture that provides the education, encouragement, technology, recognition, reinforcement, and the rewards that create an environment where people go to work every day inspired and motivated to give great service, for external customers and for colleagues.
It becomes very clear that the people who are facing the external customer, also need to be served well by their colleagues on the inside, because those internal departments give customer service the support, encouragement, and responsiveness that they need to be able to give excellent external service.
It becomes very clear that the people who are facing the external customer,
also need to be served well by their colleagues on the inside, because those
internal departments give customer service the support, encouragement, and
responsiveness that they need to be able to give excellent external service.
SPEAKING.COM: What is the relationship between customer service and other departments of an organization?
RON KAUFMAN: Referring again to the definition of service, as taking action to create value for someone else, we can see that every department is actually a service department. The IT department provides the hardware and the software, the value that we need to be able to get our jobs done. The Finance department creates value for the organization by handling the budgets, the reports and the collections and the payments. All of the internal departments are in fact service providers.
So when we talk about the relationship between customer service external and other departments within an organization, it becomes very clear that the people who are facing the external customer, also need to be served well by their colleagues on the inside, because those internal departments give customer service the support, encouragement, and responsiveness that they need to be able to give excellent external service.
SPEAKING.COM: What are some ways leaders can measure service on an organizational scale?
RON KAUFMAN: There are many measures, surveys, and indices that can be used: customer satisfaction or customer loyalty scores, employee engagement scores, net promoter scores, etc. However, we think the most important measure that you can use on an organizational scale is the Service Culture Indicator.
SCI stands for Service Culture Indicator, where we help leaders and teams throughout entire organizations make an assessment on where the service culture is today. When you want to take action to make your service culture stronger, on an organization scale, you need two readings. Number one: Where are we weak? What needs to be improved? And number two: Are our leaders in agreement about that? The Service Culture Indicator helps to give that snapshot and then can be used on a recurring basis, every quarter or every six months, to see how the culture continues to develop and perform.
SPEAKING.COM: What are a few of the 12 Building Blocks of Service Culture?
RON KAUFMAN: The common service language is the first building block, and that is produced by providing the Actionable Service Education that I teach about in my keynotes: for example, the definition of service, the six levels of service, or the four categories of value, among other frameworks that can be used for building greater trust and partnership.
The second building block is called an Engaging Service Vision, though organizations can call it a vision, a mission, a credo, a slogan, etc. The important thing is: is it engaging? Is it connecting emotionally with the employees, motivating them, turning them on, and giving them some inspiration?
For instance, Singapore Airlines has this slogan: “Service even other airlines talk about.” Whoa. That creates such a sense of pride in the employees every day.
Or the Ritz Carlton’s credo: “We are ladies and gentlemen, serving ladies and gentlemen.” Aww. What a natural way to attract talented people who want to be service providers in an elegant, refined, sophisticated environment, serving customers who are elegant, refined and sophisticated.
Additionally, there’s a company in Wisconsin, whose vision is, “Our world is serving yours.” Think about coming to work every day and seeing a big sign over the department that says, “Our world is serving yours,” and then getting on the phone to talk with a customer. You’re going to feel like your life purpose is to help take care of someone else.
Incidentally, that Wisconsin company is the world’s largest manufacturer of cheese, but they didn’t choose a credo like, “We’re cheese makers.” Their world is about serving the world of the customers.
A leader isn’t looking for consistency in process, protocol, script, and activities. What a leader really wants is consistency in quality of service as experienced by customers, and different customers value and appreciate different things.
A leader isn’t looking for consistency in process, protocol, script, and activities.
What a leader really wants is consistency in quality of service as experienced
by customers, and different customers value and appreciate different things.
SPEAKING.COM: When it comes to customer service, every customer wants something different. So how can leaders and managers create a framework or protocol that allows their team to successfully meet a wide array of expectations?
RON KAUFMAN: This is a terrific question, because a leader isn’t looking for consistency in process, protocol, script, and activities. What a leader really wants is consistency in quality of service as experienced by customers, and different customers value and appreciate different things. What we need is a framework that talks about the level of experience and then empowers and enables the employees to get to know that customer, be curious about that customer, appreciate that customer, and then choose just the right actions that will produce that caliber of service experience.
The framework I’m referring to is called the Six Levels of Service.
- The lowest level is Criminal, where you break a service promise.
- Basic – you do the bare minimum. You’re late. You’re incomplete. The service is impolite.
- Expected – This is average, industry standard.
- Desired – This is when you serve someone the way they like it, which means you need to understand who they are and how they prefer to be served.
- Surprising – This is when you take action that creates value that is unexpected, because you understand that customer. You know what they need, what they care about, and what they’re concerned about. And then, even though they did not ask you to do something, you see that an action that you could take would be valuable for them and you take the action.
- Unbelievable – this is the astonishing, “Oh, my gosh. Blow me away” kind of story that becomes a legend and goes viral.
Now, I’m not recommending that companies provide unbelievable service to every customer all the time. You’d go bankrupt if you tried to do that! However, it’s very important that every member of the team recognizes that that level does exist so they can reach out to each other, seek support, and get support when these unique opportunities present themselves.
Now, the Six Levels of Service have a twist. They’re not steps, but rather an escalator that’s always going downward, because if you do something unbelievable, it will only be unbelievable the first time you do it. The next time, it’s a nice Surprise. You do it a third time, it’s what they Desire. After a while, it becomes Expected, and then just Basic. Then one day if you don’t do it, that could even be Criminal. Excellence, then, is not a level on the Six Levels of Service; it’s finding and taking the next step up. In turn, service excellence is, “taking the next step up to create more value for someone else.”
SPEAKING.COM: What are some actions leaders can take to align departments behind a service commitment?
RON KAUFMAN: Build a culture that is focused on that commitment. Recruit people who are aligned with, uplifted, inspired, and motivated to deliver on that commitment. In an orientation program for new staff, give them examples and show them how the company is living up to and achieving that commitment. Provide recognition and rewards for employees who are doing the things necessary to deliver on that commitment.
So, it’s not just a question of having a commitment. What you can do is get every single department to understand, “This is what we’re committed to. This is what someone else needs to experience, so that they experience this level of commitment, whether it’s internal or external.” Then use the 12 Building Blocks of Service Culture, the Seven Rules of Service Leadership, and all of the service principles in the foundation of service education to build a culture that delivers on your commitment every day.
SPEAKING.COM: How can leaders provide uplifting service to both their employees and clients, when there is a conflict between the two parties?
RON KAUFMAN: Whenever there is a conflict between the two parties, it means that one party values this, but the other party values that. What you need to do then is bring these two awarenesses to the team, so that you can look from even a higher level as, “What is our commitment? What is our purpose?” and then ask the team to come into alignment.
Let’s say, a holiday is coming up and clients want to be able to stay late, party, and have a great time. Meanwhile, the employees want to be able to go home and be with their families. If you’re the leader, don’t wait until the last minute to be pushing your team members to stay late. Early on in the game, you might say, “I understand that our team members want to be with families on this important holiday. And we as a business understand that our clients want to be able to be here and celebrate throughout the holiday.”
Once you’ve gotten each party to see the other’s perspective, how do you come into alignment so that both groups can be satisfied? If I were the leader of that team I would give them a little extra time off before the holidays, or I’d arrange for a big party for the staff and let them bring their families in to celebrate how well we took care of our clients during that holiday, shortly after the holiday itself.
If the organization has a weak service culture and you’re the brand new person, you’re at the bottom of the totem pole, but what you say and do can still focus people in the right direction. Inspire them and encourage them, because what a weak service culture needs is the belief in the possibility that it can be improved.
If the organization has a weak service culture and you’re the brand new person,
you’re at the bottom of the totem pole, but what you say and do can still focus
people in the right direction. Inspire them and encourage them, because what a
weak service culture needs is the belief in the possibility that it can be improved.
SPEAKING.COM: Let’s say you’re an entry-level employee in a company with a weak service culture. What can you, as one person at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy, do to improve your workplace’s service culture?
RON KAUFMAN: Anybody, even entry level, can make a contribution. How do you do that? Document stories, take examples, be observant, notice things that are going well in service in the organization that you joined, and then send those compliments up the chain. Be the person in the meeting who, even though you’re new, might say, “I noticed that Frank over in Accounting did this thing and I just want to say how much we appreciate it because it made things easier for me.” Or, “I’m brand new here, but I really want to take a moment to thank the HR team for the orientation program, because for me, that was really a great experience of being served, and it now inspires me to want to serve our customers.”
Why is this important? If the organization has a weak service culture and you’re the brand new person, you’re at the bottom of the totem pole, but what you say and do can still focus people in the right direction. Inspire them and encourage them, because what a weak service culture needs is the belief in the possibility that it can be improved.
So if you’re new, find good things to talk about and when you see things that are not going well, rather than just saying, “We have a problem,” take the time to think about that problem. That way when you do raise it, you can say, “Here’s the problem I see, and I’ve got a couple of ideas I’d like to put out, and maybe we could brainstorm.” Then share two or three possible solutions that you have thought about, that you have discussed with other people so that you develop a reputation early on as a person who contributes and wants to make the culture stronger. Not only will that make your job more satisfying, but it will also influence your identity in the organization and your career.
SPEAKING.COM: How did ultimate frisbee lead you to a career centered on improving service?
RON KAUFMAN: If we meet in person, you’ll see that I’m much too small to have played basketball, football, or baseball at college or in high school. However, I got to be on the high school Frisbee team, even though I was a little guy.
My school, Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut, was the second high school in the world to have an ultimate frisbee team thanks to a math teacher who was familiar with Columbia High in New Jersey, where the rules were first invented. When our frisbee friends on the team went to college, we all started our own frisbee teams, and then played against each other.
I went to Brown University and I started the Frisbee team there. Later, I went to university in Europe, and again took Frisbee with me. Eventually, I ended up translating the rules of ultimate Frisbee into different languages and helping to set up national players’ associations in Frisbee, as well as organizing international tours and tournaments.
Around that time, I was especially fascinated by the idea of creating community Frisbee festivals, so that the good Frisbee players could come out to the park and show their stuff while other people could come, learn to throw and catch a Frisbee, and play different games together. In organizing those festivals, I became focused on participation; how do we get all the community members involved? Of course, Frisbee is an uplifting sport. In fact, in ultimate Frisbee, rule number 10 in the top 10 rules is called “the spirit of the game”, meaning that if there’s any issue, upset or misunderstanding, the players themselves will figure it out. You don’t actually need a referee to make the call.
Since the festivals that I created were non-competing events, they were highly collaborative, focused on the enjoyment and involvement of members of the community. That got me involved in something called citizen diplomacy. I brought frisbee players with me to China, and to the Soviet Union before its dissolution. We used play as a language to bring young people together, so it’s sort of a natural progression from ultimate frisbee to getting people to not be afraid and to communicate better with each other. When Singapore invited me to come in 1990 to help transform the nation from an economy based on low cost manufacturing and back office data processing, I already had an understanding of how to get adults involved in learning something new that would be uplifting, positive, and helpful to others. So that’s how ultimate frisbee led me to a career centered on uplifting service.
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