Customer culture

Delving into the back story of the world’s most successful businesses and top performers in customer centricity they all have one thing in common – someone at the forefront with a strong vision for the culture and personality of that organisation. It’s no accident that companies like Squarespace, Zappos, Netflix, and here at home My Foodbag, have evolved into revered examples of places that rank highly with employees, and who have winning customer service cultures.

“Culture guides discretionary behaviour and it picks up where the employee handbook leaves off. Culture tells us how to respond to an unprecedented service request. It tells us whether to risk telling our bosses about our new ideas, and whether to surface or hide problems.  Employees make hundreds of decisions on their own every day, and culture is our guide. Culture tells us what to do when the CEO isn’t in the room, which is of course most of the time.” Frances Frei and Anne Morriss at Harvard Business Review

A key part of the success of these businesses is their ability to create a culture that’s constantly pushing to achieve a clear vision and to empower staff to go that bit further, to do their best work and bring their best selves to their roles wherever possible.

But what’s in the gap between the vision and reality? What is it that creates that ‘culture of yes’ that some companies so embody?

Starting from the inside out seems to be a great formula for creating the culture you want to see played out with customers. So, here’s 7 ideas from some of today’s top performers:

1. What exactly does it look like – successful companies ask and actively define their company culture and consistently work to build internal capacity to create it. Rather than leaving it to chance, from the outset they clearly communicate what the vision is and an employee’s role in that vision – at all levels. This is backed up with core statements that will help give it definition and help employees understand what it means. For example, one of Squarespace’s core values is ‘Be your own customer –  we build products and design experiences we would want for ourselves’.

Another organisation well known for its outstanding company culture is online shoe retailer Zappos. Zappos created its core values by including input from the whole company and are legendary in terms of employee culture and customer service ethos, including values like ‘Deliver wow through service’. They even offer new hires $2,000 to quit after the first week of training to weed out anyone who’s not fully committed. According to Forbes magazine, the distinct culture Zappos has created predisposes the company to excel at customer service. They share how they create their unique culture here.

2. Be open – create a culture that’s open, with a strong bias for sharing new ideas and asking questions. This helps build a culture that’s flexible and easy to do business with. Facebook cites openness as a core value, with CEO Mark Zuckerberg believing that by providing staff with more information they make better decisions and have a greater impact on business success.

3. Lead by example – don’t just pay lip service, make customer service a key part of the internal culture whereby staff treat each other in a way that is helpful and respectful. This has to come from the top down just as it does in a family or team dynamic. Make sure leaders really embody the culture you want to create and can create a great team feeling. At Netflix this is articulated by the phrase, ‘great workplace is stunning colleagues’ and is strongly aligned to the belief that ‘talented people assisting each other contributes to greatness.’

4. Don’t just set and forget Leaders need to continually reinforce the importance of the customer, and customer centricity both through their words and (more importantly) through their actions.

How you act – and how you reward or punish the actions of others – will determine how everyone else in the company will act.  And that in turn will set the culture – honest or cheating, respectful or disrespectful, friendly or mean, trusting or mistrustful. T/Maker’s (now Broderbund) co-founder and CEO Heidi Roizen

5. Create a learning environment – strive for an environment where it’s ok to be wrong, and it’s ok to own up to mistakes and learn from them. Share your customer service successes and failures, celebrate great examples of customer service and learn from challenges so that expectations are reinforced, and real practical examples can be presented to staff to emulate or avoid.

6. Constantly bring the focus back to your customer – software company Zapier mandates that all staff, regardless of their role, must spend some time in customer support, talking directly to customers. This ‘all hands support’ as it’s called is not unusual for software companies, with the result that the people who can actually solve larger or long-term problems can be accessed directly.

“Doing all company support gets engineers to solve customer problems faster. They are hearing about the problem first-hand, they can empathize with the customer. Those same engineers would be sceptical if they heard about these problems second-hand. Then the customer is blown away that they are talking to someone who actually can solve their problem.” David Cancel, CEO and co-founder of Driftt

Similarly, Zappos has every new employee spend their first four weeks in the call centre. “Everyone that’s hired, it doesn’t matter what position–you can be an accountant, lawyer, software developer–goes through the exact same training as our call centre reps. It’s a four-week training program and then they’re actually on the phone for two weeks taking calls from customers.” Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO

7. Hire and train for it – whatever you want your culture to be, hire for it and continue to reinforce and protect the culture you want to see. It’s not just something to set and forget, but something that needs to be regularly reinforced and maintained. Hire people who are naturally inclined to be great with customers, build teams that can work together and understand each other.

Whatever the other trappings – foosball tables, hammocks, craft beer on tap, they’re no substitute for clarity and consistency on what’s expected, starting from the ground up and constantly bringing the focus back to the customer and how to make things better for them.