The Year of Customer Delight: Global service guru Ron Kaufman explains why rewiring your culture around meaningful service can create happy customers, engaged employees, and increased profitability in 2015. Here, he shares the seven rules of service leadership that will get you started.
For years you’ve tried to improve your customer service. You’ve trained and trained (burning through too many initiatives to count), but the results never seem to stick. You might see a surge of improvement with each new initiative—just enough to make you think you’ve finally figured it out—but something happens and you slide back to mediocrity. That, or your results are hit and miss—you get great customer feedback about one department, while another’s scores flatline or even sink.
Either way, you’re sick of reinventing yourself. Morale has never been lower (it’s right down there with your profits), and frankly, you doubt your exhausted employees have the wherewithal to learn a new set of scripts and processes.
So when Ron Kaufman suggests making 2015 the year you hardwire uplifting service into your culture, you might be tempted to shrug him off. That would be a huge mistake.
“Great service is not about memorizing scripts, following a certain sequence of steps,” says Kaufman, author of the New York Times bestseller Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet (www.UpliftingService.com). “It is about changing hearts, minds, attitudes. It’s about infusing the genuine—not feigned, genuine—desire to continuously improve service into the very fabric of your culture.”
Once you hardwire your culture this way, Kaufman insists, you’ll see a huge leap in customer delight. Best of all, the results won’t fade away. Why? Because truly serving others is a two-way street. You can’t bring joy to customers without also bringing joy to employees—and joyful employees want to keep doing what they’re doing.
“When you align your culture around the intention to uplift and inspire others, so many of the other problems you have fix themselves,” he says. “Employees get engaged and innovative. They stop the infighting and pull together. Customers keep coming back and bring others with them. Turnover goes down. Profits go up. Service really is that elusive magic bullet.”
This is a revolution, and like all revolutions, it has to begin with leaders. That’s why, if you want to make 2015 the year you make the leap, you must commit to Kaufman’s Seven Rules of Service Leadership:
Declare service a top priority. “Declaration is so powerful,” says Kaufman. “It’s a human linguistic act that creates a new possibility or a new situation. A nation declares itself independent. A judge declares a person innocent or guilty. JFK declares that America will put a man on the moon. These declarations set real change in motion; they change the course of human lives.
See the difference between them and the meaningless slogans many leaders spout?”
Kaufman likes to tell the story of NTUC Income in Singapore. Back in 2007 the company wasn’t failing but it was perceived as “traditional and conservative.” So when new CEO Mr. Tan Suee Chieh came on board, he set out to revitalize its image. He boldly and publicly declared that uplifting service was now a top priority in his plans for “revolution.” He then ran his declaration as a full-page ad in the local paper. Within three years, NTUC had achieved the highest industry levels of customer satisfaction in the country, had dramatically changed the market’s perception of the brand, and had increased market share to the number one position in key segments.
Consider other companies known for their consistently high-quality service, organizations that have built profitable and enduring reputations: Nordstrom, Disney, Southwest Airlines, Singapore Airlines, The Ritz-Carlton, and more recently, Zappos. The leaders of these companies consistently declare service a top priority and are vigorous in delivering on that promise.
“You can declare service a top priority by putting it first on the agenda,” says Kaufman. “You can declare service as a top priority to your customers and your colleagues in your speaking, writing, meetings, advertising, websites, newsletters, tweets, blog posts, updates, video clips, workshops, and daily actions. The message to everyone is clear: Procedures and budgets surely count, but creating value for others counts the most.”
Be a great role model. A senior executive from Matsushita Electric (now Panasonic Corporation) was visiting one of the company’s manufacturing plants overseas. Employees had even rolled out a red carpet for the occasion. In the middle of the inspection, the executive walked slowly but deliberately off the carpet toward one of the factory’s largest machines. Seven hundred workers watched in amazement as he bent down, reached under the machine, picked up a paperclip, and tucked it into his suit pocket. Then the executive quietly returned to the red carpet and continued the factory tour.
“The executive could have asked someone else to pick up the paperclip,” Kaufman points out. “He could have scolded, instructed, and sent out a memo, but he didn’t. He simply modeled an expectation, and right away, everyone in that factory had an amazingly higher standard for maintaining cleanliness in the plant. The message of this action resonated for years.
“Leaders are the people who others choose to follow, not those who simply tell other people what to do,” he adds. “That senior executive promoted that high standard with his own actions and that’s why it resonated with his people.”
Promote a common service language. Language helps us create the world in which we live. When everyone inside an organization is speaking the same language, then everyone is literally on the same page regarding the service they provide. You’re likely familiar with other companies’ common service languages. For example, Disney refers to its employees as “cast members.”
At FedEx they say, “Our blood runs purple,” and at Ritz-Carlton they say, “Ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” These are all aspects of a common service language. The service language must be spoken by everyone—yes, including leaders. Remember Mr. Tan of NTUC? When he made his declaration, it was initially met with skepticism. Some middle managers weren’t using the new language, which centered on the phrase “Service Alive!”
So Mr. Tan had them attend the service training classes employees were taking and he joined each class at the beginning and the end. Then, leaders launched a service improvement contest requiring managers to work closely with staff to implement what they learned. Soon the managers were saying, “We’ve got to work together using this language.” The results were tremendous.
“Here’s the point: Leaders cannot delegate the implementation of a common service language,” says Kaufman. “Nor can your use of service language be mere lip service. You must demonstrate your understanding and commitment with observable and admirable actions. When service leaders speak and act, people listen and choose to follow.”
Measure what really matters. When it comes to service, you can measure so many things: complaints, compliments, expectations, levels of engagement, relative importance, recent improvements, customer satisfaction, and so much more. And once you count, track, interview, survey, focus group, or mystery shop, then you can deduce, derive, deep-dive, and try to decide what to do about it all. No wonder people get confused.
“You must focus everyone on the measures that matter more: the leading indicators of new ideas and value-creating action steps rather than the lagging indicators of share price, profits, or survey results,” says Kaufman.
Let’s deconstruct his statement: At first glance, you might think your scores—customer satisfaction scores, loyalty scores, HCAHPS scores—are the best indicators that your service culture is improving. But you don’t measure those things every day. So a more immediate indicator is compliments; when people are giving you good feedback internally and externally, you know your scores are headed north. But compliments aren’t leading indicators either.
“In order to get those compliments, somebody has to come up with a new idea and take an action that’s not expected,” Kaufman explains. “They have to create an experience that will produce a compliment. So leaders need to ask, Are your actions creating value? and, Are you taking enough new actions? Then you need to measure what really matters from the bottom up: The new ideas for serving other people better lead to the new actions and the new learning about customer service and value that sparks these new ideas.”
Empower your team. “Empowerment” is a buzzword in business, and in theory, we all understand that improved service is unlikely to happen inside or outside of an organization without it. Yet many leaders and employees seem to fear it. If a leader is not confident in her people, she doesn’t want to empower them with greater authority or a larger budget. And if an employee is not confident in his abilities and decisions, he often does not want the responsibility of being empowered.
“In both cases, what’s missing is not empowerment, but the teaching, coaching, mentoring, and encouraging that must go with it,” notes Kaufman. “Empowering others in pursuit of uplifting service cannot and should not be decoupled from the responsibility to properly enable those you empower.”
Another big part of empowerment is demystifying the fear that comes along with making a mistake, adds Kaufman.
“Have a meeting and say, ‘We want learning from mistakes to be part of our culture,’” he advises. “Then, the leader says, ‘I’ll go first. Here’s the biggest mistake I made last week. Here’s what I learned from it. What can I learn from you?’ Then, everyone shares in that way, and boy does that make them feel safer. It gives them the freedom to take action.”
Remove the roadblocks to better service. In Uplifting Service, Kaufman writes about an experience he had while dining at a luxury resort in California. The waiter explained that there was a special menu that night, spotlighting several of the chef’s signature dishes. But Kaufman’s guests were vegetarians and had nothing to choose from on the menu, and Kaufman himself had been craving a particular salmon salad. So they asked to order from the regular menu. Obviously uncomfortable, the waiter replied, “If you go back to your room and order room service, then you can order the salmon salad or anything else on [the room service] menu.”
“In trying to spotlight the chef’s menu, the restaurant had created a major roadblock for the people who worked there—the waiter wasn’t given permission to serve!” points out Kaufman. “Like this waiter, most frontline staff members are taught to follow policies and procedures and are hesitant to ‘break the rules.’ Yet some rules should be broken, changed, or at least seriously bent from time to time.
“What roadblocks to better service lurk inside your organization?” he asks. “What prevents your people from taking better care of your customers? What stops them from helping their colleagues?
Service leaders ask these questions and remove the roadblocks they uncover.”
Sustain focus and enthusiasm. It’s not difficult to declare service a top priority. What’s challenging is keeping service top of mind when other issues clamor for attention. It’s not hard to use a new language for better service; what’s hard is using that language day after day until it becomes a habit. It may not be hard to track new service ideas and actions, but it can be difficult to keep your team focused on them.
“Every day, distractions will pop up that will knock you and your employees off course,” says Kaufman. “Your people are going to get sand in their gears, and when that happens, it’s your job to keep them focused and enthusiastic. How do you do that? You find opportunities to educate. You recognize individual successes. You role model what needs to happen and then recognize when other people act as role models. You acknowledge achievements.
“This is not something leaders should view as a soft and therefore less important rule,” he adds. “In fact, overlooking Rule 7 could be the mistake that derails all your plans and programs. The sustained commitment to keep focus and enthusiasm high, to put these ideas into action, must come from you.”
The best part about kicking off 2015 with a commitment to uplifting service? It’s fulfilling not just on a business level but also on a personal one.
“The irony is that when you seek to improve life for others, you also improve your own life,” says Kaufman. “When you commit to empowering and being a role model for people in all levels of your organization, you make their jobs easier and more enjoyable. You make customers’ experiences more positive. And when those two things happen, you do, indeed, experience more fulfillment and less struggle as a leader.
“Human beings really are designed to serve others,” he adds. “It brings us joy. And joy, I believe, is what we’re all seeking when we make our resolutions every year.”