Implementing a Customer Service Initiative CULTURAL REVOLUTION

A truly successful initiative will appeal to everyone from the Chairman on down

Welcome to the customer age! Navigation is tricky, objectives are elusive, and profits are sacrificed because customers are always right. They demand lower prices, faster delivery, and greater benefits without increasing their loyalty. The search for exceptional service has spawned a billion–dollar industry encompassing CRM (customer relationship management) technology, customer-centricity, and a boatload of services that automate ineffective processes.

It is time to move beyond this “customer is always right” conventional wisdom, and toward creating a corporate culture that provides functional and emotional value to customers, employees, and shareholders. Chances are, everything needed is readily available within the organization. It is simply a matter of identifying key information; extracting it from customers, employees, and databases; strategically utilizing it to evaluate and improve value; and refining the process as needed. Implementation of such an initiative is simple—but not easy.

Roll Up Your Sleeves!
First, the best strategy for customers, employees and the company must be developed. This requires roll-up-your-sleeves hard work. Then, a cultural revolution has to begin, requiring redesign of departmental roles and responsibilities so a solid foundation can be formed. (People will resist this.) Next, a support system of policies and processes has to be built: “Roll up your sleeves” again. Every function has to be evaluated, then accepted, revised, or eliminated. Finally, appropriate automation must be chosen and implemented. (Everyone knows this pain.) But wait—there’s more! Implementing a service initiative is not a project; it is an evolution that requires ongoing review and tweaking to be successful.

Why would anyone go through such an excruciating process? Because the payoff is huge. It improves loyalty, morale, and profitability. It integrates marketing, sales, and service into a cohesive unit generating consistent performance and customer retention. It moves beyond commodity marketing, developing long-term relationships with customers and employees.

Balancing the Three Partners
Business is tough; shareholders are dismayed. Customers are demanding. Employees are disgruntled. The primary challenge of the planning stage is to develop a business strategy that balances all of these needs. Profitability is the company’s basic need for survival; customer and employee loyalty is the key to long-term profitability. Companies that move beyond providing functional value and toward creating an emotional bond between the company, employees, and customers are rewarded with obsessive loyalty.

Customers are attracted by functional value such as product selection, price, and convenience. Increasing functional value will attract and retain customers as long as the offer outbids the competition. But providing functional and emotional value will retain customers even when lower prices are available elsewhere. Emotional value is created by presentation, appreciation, and service. Every contact with the customer must represent the corporate brand, demonstrate an appreciation for the customer, and provide quality service.

The best service employees are those who feel appreciated and recognized by the company for their contributions; they pass that appreciation on to the customers they assist. A successful strategy must include a plan for creating an enthusiastic support team. Functional value such as pay and benefits are excellent recruitment and retention tools. Enthusiasm and loyalty is inspired by recognition, communication, and appreciation. The best strategy models ideal customer, employee, and company relationships. It begins with customer segmentation by value to identify the characteristics of every customer level. Next, it defines the employee model and organizational structure required to align corporate culture with high-value customer needs. Finally, it identifies those customers that will ultimately be abandoned.

Once there is a consensus on relationship development, specific goals and objectives must be established. They must be realistic and support the corporate vision. The final plan should be strategic and open-ended, with clear measures of success.

Instigate a Cultural Revolution
A successful service initiative requires the complete integration of all departments. Sworn enemies have to start working together for common goals. Since people resist change they must be convinced that it is in their own best interest to make the initiative successful. Education is the optimal tool for motivating a cultural change. Well-trained employees will provide consistent behavior and productivity. Well-educated employees will resolve issues before they become challenges. Excellent service requires a combination of education and training. The cultural revolution begins with the communication of the strategy to everyone in the organization. Its goal is to eliminate the competition between departments found in departmental cultures and disconnected companies. Educate everyone on the importance of the initiative and the expected impact. Teach them to look for value in every process and interaction. Explain that there is a new culture evolving and this is their opportunity to grow and benefit from the improvements. The major challenge of this phase is to identify the players and position them correctly.
Employees will fall into three categories:

  • Supporters (those who see the change as an opportunity)

  • Bottlenecks (those who resist the change but do not work against it)

  • Detractors (those who actively work against the initiative)

Employees who are resisting the change (bottlenecks and detractors) must be grouped together and isolated from the supporters. They will then either choose to support the initiative or be abandoned.

Develop the Tactical Plan
Once the players are positioned, it is time to develop and implement the tactical plan. Start with the evaluation of processes and policies. Every function has to consistently support the plan for loyalty and profitability. Search for inconsistencies between policies and procedures. The goal is to streamline business processes, data analysis, and systems. Some areas will require revision; others will require a complete rebuilding or elimination. If there are any areas with substantial internal ownership, let the owners conduct the evaluation. It is amazing the improvements that will be made when the responsibility of evaluation is placed on the owners.

Simplifying the organization requires eliminating the layers of bureaucracy between employees and the information they really need. Not everything that can be measured should be, so invest the time and effort to determine the specific data that drives your business and maximize its impact. Conversely, not everything that is important can be measured, so make sure the focus on measurement doesn’t eliminate intangible essentials.

Quality service is the fusion of marketing and operations to create a seamless shopping experience. Many processes are created because they serve the company, not the customer. They actually serve to push the customer away rather than pull them closer. For example, customers do not need (or in most cases want) to track their order through the system. Seamless service requires that customers receive a confirmation with an expected delivery date after placing orders via the channel of their choice. Customers want to follow up on orders even less than companies want the service calls. So make it easy. Provide a realistic delivery date upon receipt of the order and follow up with the customer if there are any changes. It will keep external parties out of your system, improve customer satisfaction and reduce costs.

The Three Considerations
There are three considerations for every function and position within the organization.

  1. Does it meet the requirements for service and profitability?

    There has to be a balance between service and profitability so calculate a return on investment for every item.

  2. Can it be simplified or eliminated?

    Even if an item meets the service and profitability requirements, it may be overkill or unnecessary.

  3. Does it improve the value proposition for customers, employees, and shareholders?

    Some items are vital to long term relationships but they cannot be quantified.

Look at each change from everyone’s perspective to verify its effectiveness. For example, reducing the customer service staff without reducing the workload will initially serve the shareholders by reducing costs. Employees will view it as an arbitrary management decision, and customer service will decline. Ultimately, costs will rise because employee turnover and customer attrition will increase. Search for the win/win/win solutions that best serve everyone.

Automate Appropriately
Technology is an excellent tool for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of essential processes. Now is the time to identify the processes (or parts thereof) that can be effectively automated. State of the art technology is exciting and tempting, but few companies need this level of sophistication. They need systems that automate essential processes and enable effective relationship management as defined by the corporate strategy and culture. It is critical that automation is a function of realistic need and value. Just because something can be automated, doesn’t mean that automation provides value. Evaluate technology like every other function to insure it meets the requirements. Don’t forget to include the maintenance costs in the ROI. Start small, evaluate carefully, and build on as needed.

Refine and Polish
The strategy is set, employees are enthusiastic, policies and processes are effective and efficient, and the technology is working. Time to sit back and watch for the rewards, right? Wrong! A service initiative is an ongoing process. Everyone must stay the course and not lose interest. If it becomes a project instead of an evolution, then the initiative will ultimately fail. Periodically, every process and policy needs to be reviewed to determine continued effectiveness. This includes the overall strategy. As the company evolves, the relationships with customers and employees will evolve. They must continually be realigned with the corporate goals and visions. Some employees and customers will move on to other organizations. If they are the ones non-supportive of the corporate culture, accept the loss and move on. If they are the ones that were supportive, but lost interest, then the implementation was inconsistent with the strategy.

An effective service initiative implementation integrates people, process and technology to maximize the value provided to customers, employees, and shareholders. It requires companies to develop strategies that define the unique service standard for their organizations. Failure to build from the bottom up will result in failure of the initiative. During the transition, the best customers and employees must be identified and encouraged. Solicit feedback after every customer interaction or functional modification. Provide appropriate feedback and rewards to employees throughout the process. Implementing a service initiative is simply planning, people, process, and technology. It requires strategy, communication, perseverance, and organization. Implementation inspires customer loyalty, improves employee morale, and generates profitable growth. It creates connected companies where everyone understands the objectives, how they impact the organization, and works together for common goals.

Debra Ellis is a principal of Wilson & Ellis Consulting, Barnardsville, NC. Reach her at 828-626-3756, or e-mail