In the time I’ve spent working with or studying those companies with truly outstanding customer service cultures (such as Nordstrom, USAA, Southwest Airlines, The Container Store, Zappos, L.L. Bean, Mayo Clinic, MOD Pizza, and Bob’s Red Mill) and their equally excellent but lesser-known business-to-business (B2B) counterparts, I find each company’s culture to be, on the surface, quite distinct.
For example, an employee who spends her early career in the straitlaced but excellent Member Support environment of USAA in San Antonio and then moves to Vegas to join the wild-and-woolly world of the Customer Loyalty Team at Zappos is definitely going to need an adjustment period before she feels at home. Yet, just below the surface distinctions, these cultures have a lot in common. I’ve distilled a list of ten characteristics that I believe to be shared by all great customer service cultures (expanding on an earlier list published here some years ago).
I recommend reviewing this list and considering how your own company culture stacks up. Then, wherever you find yourself lacking, get ready to roll up your sleeves.
1. No “not my job.” There’s an understanding within great company cultures that every employee will pitch in wherever needed, regardless of an employee’s particular job description and level in the organization. This can manifest itself daily, as it does at Disney parks, where employees (“cast members”) from each and every level of the organization can be found interrupting whatever else they may be doing to pick up stray trash wherever they encounter it. Or this pitching in outside of an employee’s daily functions can come up primarily on special occasions, the days or peak hours when help is needed to handle additional volume.
Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh
For example, during the holiday rush, every Zappos employee, including CEO Tony Hsieh and other members of the executive team, spends time working the phone lines shoulder-to-shoulder with the regular call center employees; similarly, at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, when there’s a time-sensitive need to convert a meeting room setup into a banquet room arrangement or vice versa, it’s “all hands on deck” until accomplished.
2. Employees have control over how they carry out their duties. In a great company culture, not only are employees empowered to assist customers in proactive (and, at times, inconvenient or expensive) ways, they also have a level of creative control over how they carry out their day-to-day duties. Although great companies provide comprehensive guidance and training, they don’t excessively script or regiment employees in how to carry out their interactions with customers. Employees are not, in other words, just interchangeable cogs, nor are they serfs to be exploited solely for their labor. They are fully dimensional human beings who are both expected to and supported in making full and unique contributions.
3. There’s support for customer-focused innovation. A great customer service culture can’t be static. Happily, employees within the culture, simply due to their pro-customer inclinations, will find multiple areas for improvement, each and every shift they work. While this, of course, is a great start, it’s ultimately not enough. Customer-focused innovation thrives when a progressive attitude is supported by processes and systems to harvest employee ideas and bring them to fruition. (You may also enjoy a document I have available to support innovation in your organization. For a free copy of “25 Essential Innovation Prompts,” email me at email@example.com.)
4. Employee selection (hiring) practices support a customer service focus. Sustaining a great customer service culture is much more possible if employees have a natural predisposition to serve. While there’s no complete guarantee that every employee hired via a trait-based selection approach will fulfill their potential and advance the company culture, great companies understand that this is the right place to start.
5. A commitment to ongoing improvement via customer service training and retraining, from orientation (onboarding) onward. Training can take many shapes, from the initial inspiration and guidance that new employees receive at the time of orientation, to the Customer Service Minute, to more elaborate training sessions, workshops, and all-hands keynotes with a customer service theme. All of these are ways that great customer service cultures maintain themselves and ensure that they continue to grow so that service greatness isn’t left to happenstance and doesn’t plateau or diminish over time from inertia and entropy.
6. An environment that empowers every employee to take the initiative in service of their customers. Once employees are properly selected, oriented, and trained, they require empowerment to flourish. All of these primed-to-be-great employees can’t do their best work, or contribute to the greatness of a service culture, until they’re given the power and leeway to do so. And all great customer service cultures do give employees such power and leeway. In fact, it’s understood that, as an employee in a service culture such as predominates at Nordstrom or Zappos or the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, it’s your job to be empowered: to take positive, creative action on behalf of others.
New York City’s first-ever women’s Nordstrom
AFP via Getty Images
7. A common language. At Zappos, employees refer to themselves as Zapponians; their lobby gift shop is the Z’Boutique, the contact center is called the Customer Loyalty Team, and so forth. Southwest Airlines creatively spells words such as “luv” in its mission statement and internal documents. This kind of common language, though it may seem goofy to outsiders, is useful in bringing a company together and make everyone who works at a company feel like they’re part of the “in crowd.” (Be careful here: internal jargon shouldn’t be allowed to slip into conversation or correspondence with customers, as it will likely confuse them or make them feel like outsiders.)
8. Legendary stories. Tales of over-the-top customer service are valuable in making a point to prospective, incoming, and even long-tenured employees about what an organization’s culture consists of and what it places a value on. Southwest Airlines has many such stories, often about assisting passengers in distress; similarly, USAA Insurance has many inspiring tales that get told internally, often stemming from work they’ve done for their members in flood recovery and other disaster assistance. Each such story serves the same purpose: to show what is valued in the company’s culture and the lengths to which employees should be willing to go in terms of investing empathy, resources, and creativity.
9. Pride. At Southwest Airlines, which is so frequently rated tops within aviation for customer service, employee pride is palpable. Case in point: Once, when I told a flight attendant what I do for a living, she asked for my address and mailed me her own copy of Nuts!, a classic book about Southwest. Inside, scribbled throughout the book, were forty or so of her own notes, comments like “So true! We really do try to do this for our passengers,” and “Yes! This is exactlyhow we aim to treat each other!” and “This is what makes working here amazing!” Again: This was not a publicist. This was a flight attendant promoting her own company on her own initiative, and at her own expense.
10. Humility. The same companies that exhibit such pride are also, paradoxically, humble in ways that keep an organization both solidly rooted and open to learning and growth. Case in point: People from a variety of levels of the Nordstrom organization have posted comments and written to me in response to my articles covering Nordstrom’s customer service prowess. What’s notable to me about these comments is how uniformly they include an element of humility and eagerness to improve, rather than patting themselves on the back for the positive coverage I’ve provided in the published piece. These responses falls essentially along the lines of, “Thanks for the recognition in your article. We’re just striving to provide the best service we can and to improve every day.”
Ignore Your Customers (and They’ll Go Away)
Micah Solomon is a customer service and company culture consultant, keynote speaker and trainer, as well as an executive ghostwriter and content creator. He was recently named “the World’s #1 Customer Service Turnaround Expert” by Inc. Magazine. Please email Micah directly, visit his website, or read Micah’s new bestseller: Ignore Your Customers (and They’ll Go Away).(HarperCollins Leadership).