The 12 Building Blocks of Uplifting Service Culture – Part One

You step off the plane, weary from a long flight. As you walk through the terminal, you can’t believe your eyes. The airport is immaculate with walkways as wide as roadways and not a speck of litter anywhere. As you move deeper into the terminal, you see a butterfly garden, an outdoor swimming pool, playground equipment, a four-story slide, napping rooms, spa treatments, and entertainment venues including movie theaters and video-gaming stations. Airport employees eagerly greet you with smiles and ask how they can help.

Have you stumbled upon some air traveler’s mirage? Is this an illusion in the familiar airport desert of grim décor, stressed out passengers, rude counter agents, and crowded gate areas? No, this oasis of pleasure is what things are really like at Changi Airport in Singapore—and it’s the perfect illustration of what service can (and should) look like in our global economy.

Consider how frustrating service can be in airports today. Typically, passengers are focused on where they are going and have business or family concerns on their minds. They are often tired, or stressed, and can be easily upset. And the process often makes things worse. Lines move slowly, agents can be impersonal, and going through security can feel like you’re part of the day’s prison intake. Sure, security is important—we have to get people through the system safely and efficiently. But that doesn’t mean airport service has to be unpleasant. Why do we accept it as the norm—when it can be so much more?

My intention is not to pick on airports. Bad service is rampant in every industry. It’s just that Changi Airport happens to be one of the most dramatic examples I’ve seen of what service can be—and the contrast between it and other airports is just too stark not to describe!

Service is everywhere. But there is a vast disconnect between the volume of service we need and the quality of service we are giving and receiving. Businesses have turned a very simple human concept into a catastrophic cliché. They remain blind to the fact that true service comes not from demands and dashboards, but from a basic human desire to take care of other people.

How do you start your own uplifting service revolution? In my new book, Uplifting Service, I pinpoint “The 12 Building Blocks of Uplifting Service Culture”. With these building blocks in place, you’ll have the architecture to build a sustainable culture that delivers outstanding service every day.

1. Common Service Language. The whole domain of service suffers from weak clichés, poor distinctions, and inaccurate common sense. For example, “The customer is always right” is often wrong. “Oh, you want service?” an employee asks. “Well, you’ll have to talk to our service department.” Or, “You want something else or something different? That’s not our policy.” This is as true internally as it is with customers. “It’s not my job to make you happy,” says a manager. “Talk to human resources if you’ve got something to say.” An executive might even say, “It’s not personal. It’s just business.”

Using and promoting a Common Service Language is the first building block, because human beings create the world in which we live by using language. We create meaning with language, and we can change our world by inventing or adopting new language. Your Common Service Language should be meaningful and attractive—a shared vocabulary to focus the attention and the actions of your team. It should clarify meaning, promote purpose, and align everyone’s intentions and objectives.

2. Engaging Service Vision. “Many Partners, Many Missions, One Changi.” That’s the Engaging Service Vision that unites everyone who works at Changi Airport. At Changi, a coffee shop worker can tell you the departure gate locations and the fastest ways to get there. Airline employees know where you can buy last-minute souvenirs. Airport police can tell you how to find the post office and what time it opens. At this remarkable gateway, everyone works together to create positive experiences every day.

That’s what Engaging Service Visions do—they unify and energize everyone in an organization. They pose a possibility each person can understand and aim to achieve in his or her work, role, team, and organization. It doesn’t matter whether you call this building block your service vision, mission, core value, guiding principle, credo, motto, slogan, saying, or tagline. What matters is that your Engaging Service Vision is engaging.

3. Service Recruitment. Are you “Googley”? Are you able to “Create Fun and a Little Weirdness” at work? These important considerations are made during the hiring process at Google and Zappos, respectively. These companies know it is much easier to build a strong culture by hiring new people with the right attitude than to hire people for their skills alone and then try to align them around a common service vision.

Each new hire either makes your culture stronger or makes your challenge to build a great service culture a little harder. The right people pull naturally in the right direction. While cultural misfits may be incredibly talented, well connected, or experienced in a specific area, their impact on the team can be confusing or downright disruptive.

Every new hire sends a message to everyone else. Either you are committed to your service culture and hire good people to prove it, or your commitment is shallow lip service only, and your next hire also proves it.

4. Service Orientation. Unfortunately, many company orientation programs are far from uplifting. Often they are little more than robotic introductions: This is your desk; this is your password; those are your colleagues; these are the tools, systems, and processes we use; I am your boss; and if you have any questions, ask. Welcome to the organization. Now get to work. These basic introductions and inductions are important, but they don’t connect new employees to the company or the culture in a welcoming and motivating way.

Service Orientation goes far beyond induction. Zappos really gets this. Its four-week cross-department orientation process is an example of new-hire orientation at its finest—deeply embedding and delivering on the company’s brand and core value, “Deliver WOW Through Service.” Zappos understands that new team members should feel informed, inspired, and encouraged to contribute to the culture.

It even offers an out for new hires who realize the culture isn’t for them. If you think the culture isn’t a perfect fit for you, the company will pay you for the hours you’ve put in so far, plus a cash bonus to leave now with a smile. The amount started at $100 and has since been raised to a whopping $2,000. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is actually thinking of increasing it again because not enough people accept the opt-out offer. The point is not paying people to go, but making sure the right people choose to stay.

5. Service Communications. A company’s Service Communications can be as big and bold as a sign in the front of a store proclaiming that the customer is always right or as simple as including employees’ hobbies or passions on their nametags. Service Communications are used to educate and inform, to connect people, and to encourage collaboration, motivate, congratulate, and inspire.

They’re essential because they can be used to promote your service language, expand your service vision, showcase your new hires, announce your latest contest, explain your measures and service metrics, and give voice to your customers’ compliments and complaints. Service Communications keep your people up-to-date with what’s happening, what’s changing, what’s coming next, and most of all what’s needed now.

6. Service Recognition and Rewards. Service Recognition and Rewards are a vital building block of service culture. They are a way of saying “thank you,” “job well done,” and “please do it again” all at the same time. Recognition is a human performance accelerator and one of the fastest ways to encourage repeat service behavior.

While money may seem like the most obvious reward for employees, it isn’t always the most effective. In fact, a well-known automobile dealership learned this lesson the hard way. It paid its sales team a special bonus for achieving high levels of customer satisfaction. But when bonus payments were curtailed during an economic downturn, customer satisfaction levels also fell.

Genuine appreciation fully expressed makes a more lasting impact on any employee. And there are tons of great ways to reward and recognize. You can do it in public, in private, in person, in writing, for individuals, or for teams. You can do it with a handwritten letter, a standing ovation, two tickets to a concert or a ball game, an extra day off, dinner for the family, a star on the nametag… I could go on and on. Recognition and rewards are great ways to show gratitude from customers, admiration from colleagues, and strong approval from leaders of the organization. They can drive service commitment and behavior to even higher levels and are more memorable and emotional than simply receiving money.

Click here to read the second part of this blog post.