Monday, February 9, 2009

Customer Experience Pt 3 - Defining Culture

Post series written by Andrew McMillan (Principal Consultant at Charteris specialising in customer experience). Before joining Charteris, Andrew had a 28 year career with John Lewis and spent the last eight years of that career being responsible for the quality of service and selling across the UK department stores.

So, if you read my last two pieces and are still with me you will understand my views on how customer experience fits into the operating model of any business and how the businesses’ culture is at the heart of defining the customer experience it delivers.

That’s great if the business has been overtly aware of those impacts from day one and has taken conscious action to safeguard and nurture the culture of the business as it has grown. There are some great examples of businesses that have successfully done that. First Direct bank is one and Virgin Atlantic is another. Both are known for delivering a distinct and defined customer experience and they use that point of differentiation to market and drive the growth of their businesses.

Sadly, in my experience, businesses such as these are very much in the minority and “we need to change our culture” is a common plea from organisations I work with. “Change your culture from what to what?” is usually my first question, and it rarely elicits a clear answer. I think that’s because culture is so pervasive within a large organisation that it becomes this huge ‘elephant in the room’ that everyone sees, but nobody likes to acknowledge or talk about. Closer questioning usually returns responses such as “our people don’t work together as a team” or “nobody seems to really care about the success of the business”, or sometimes, more honestly, “our service is poor because they don’t really care about customers”. Unfortunately by the time a business is experiencing these symptoms to the point they have become noticeable the damage has been done.

So what’s gone wrong?

Often as the business has grown the focus has been on developing the product or service and the processes that support it and not the people. New recruits have been engaged to fulfil a function with little regard for the alignment of their attitude and personality with the original business aims. Sometimes it can be that the expectations of customers have moved on and the business hasn’t adapted accordingly.

The most common reaction is to put everyone in the business through a training course on customer service. It seems like a good idea on the face of it, but I rarely see lasting benefit. Sure, if the course is well designed and executed it will provide a stimulus to the business, often for just long enough for the training consultancy to collect their, usually sizeable, cheque and run! The problem is the employees won’t have seen any significant change in the heart of the way the business operates, so a few weeks later it’s ‘business as usual’. I’m not suggesting that training doesn’t have a place, and it is important for most organisations, you just have to be clear on what it can and can’t achieve. It’s essential for teaching how a shop’s till system operates, product knowledge or how a call centre agent must include legally required statements if they operate in the finance sector. It can also set baseline standards for how customers are addressed to or how telephones are answered, but these are processes that contribute to the customer experience, they don’t define or differentiate it.

So, what do you do?

Well, you rewind the clock and try to recall the basic aims and attitudes the business started with – what did you aim to do and how did you aim to do it? This will identify and help articulate the customer experience the owner had subconsciously in their mind when they started the business. Unfortunately for many businesses this isn’t possible as they may have become too large or have been sold on by the time the culture has been identified as an issue, so those original aspirations will have been lost. In these cases it’s down to the current management to redefine the experience they want to deliver for their customers and, importantly in commercial sectors, how that will differentiate them from the competition. If a business is really brave they can ask their employees what they want their customers to experience. I have seen some really powerful definitions created by the employees of businesses whose managers have previously told me they have an issue with culture. Either way, it’s essential that the employees are consulted in this process to validate the output if they are to engage with and support what follows.

The output, however it is achieved, should be a simple statement defining what the business aims to be in terms of customer experience and the behaviours that will define it. One of my favourites is from Ritz Carlton hotels who have a world renowned reputation for great customer experiences: Welcomed, Wanted, Remembered, Cared For. Essentially, this statement is memorable and is applied both to how they treat their customers and how they treat their employees. Another one, which gives me a great sense of personal satisfaction, was created by the employees of a local government team I have recently worked with: People, Passion, Pride. The power of these statements is their simplicity, which makes them memorable, and their relevancy to the businesses’ product or service.

You also need to be careful how these statements are positioned with the employees if they are to be effective. To call them ‘vision statements’ isn’t very relevant to a front line employee and so many that I see are meaningless such as ‘to deliver world class service’ or ‘to exceed our customers’ expectations’. What do these mean in terms of behaviour to an employee on a till or in a call centre? Aspirations that are delivered as ‘vision’ or ‘mission’ statements and use meaningless management speak can only damage a businesses’ culture further by providing a breeding ground for cynicism.

So, hopefully we have done the seemingly impossible and identified and articulated the businesses’ culture in a simple statement and engaged the employees in the process. Next time we shall look at how that statement becomes a foundation for improving the customer experience.


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