Tag Archives: Values

Customer Service. Strategy or culture?

Customer Service is the great differentiator for your brand. Competitors may offer a similar product or service, but the way you treat people—the way you make people feel within the brand experience—will define the brand. No exceptions.

There are two important mandates for customer service:

The first is the experience you intend to share with your customers—the promise you’ve made. This is rooted in your strategy; fail here and you’re doomed. (But that’s a post for another day)

The second is the experience you provide when things don’t go as planned. The way you treat people in the middle of chaos—chaos you’ve caused or chaos thrust upon you—will have a tremendous impact on the brand story, perhaps even the most impact. Success here is rooted in your culture.

When the shit hits the fan—and it will at some point—we expect the brand to understand and honour the relationship we shared in the good times. We expect the brand to honour our needs BEFORE they worry about their own. We expect the brand to deliver the experience when it matters to us, not only when it’s convenient for them. And we expect the brand to know more about solving our problem that we do; we expect them to be prepared.

Customer Service, for all the tools and techniques and plans and training, is about treating human beings with respect. Respect for the promises you’ve made; respect for moment you’re in; respect for the variables that make each of us unique. It’s an art, not a science. It’s in your culture.

Anyone who has seen my Essential Brand Strategy presentation knows of my admiration for WestJet, a Canadian based airline that focuses on a fun, friendly travel experience.  A few days ago they lost my luggage.

Their customer service culture, not just a problem-recovery strategy, made all the difference.

  • I never felt like Westjet lost my bag because of sloppy staff. It was simply an error, not negligence or apathy.
  • They apologized first. They were genuinely disappointed—not in themselves or their team, but the situation. I never felt like they weren’t 100% positive they would find it, and I always believed they were in control.
  • They compensated me without hesitation, even though they promptly found the bag. The employee recognized their team dropped the ball on the relationship—the flight—and accepted responsibility.

Luggage gets lost. It’s an inconvenient reality of air travel, and like many people, I have lost luggage with other airlines. While the other airlines stopped short of blaming me, there was always the impression that my action somehow broke their system, or that my need to have my bags was now an inconvenience for the airline—a disruption of their normal duties. The report, the solution, the reconnection—all met with just enough contempt to break any promise of friendly skies. Perhaps they loved to fly, but dealing with luggage problems was simply out of scope.

WestJet didn’t just retrieve my luggage; they did it within the experience I expect.

Now, I don’t want to belittle their business model, but good customer service isn’t exactly a secret formula for success. But with WestJet, it’s not really a formula at all.

Their approach to customer service is rooted in a culture that genuinely cares for their customer. It’s in their brand. It’s not a marketing tool; it’s an HR obsession. WestJet doesn’t train nice people to do things right—they hire awesome people and give them permission to do the right things. It shows.

Customer service is never just a strategy. When it is your culture, it is your brand.

Advertisements

You’ll miss your Mission when it’s gone.

A few weeks ago I was challenged to defend the need for Vision, Mission or Value statements for organizations. Since I believe such statements—or at least the context that supports them—are fundamental to any organization, I’ll admit the simplicity of the question caught me off guard.

Their argument is as follows: “How is a statement supposed to change or guide my behaviour? It is silly to think that a frivolous collection of words would somehow inspire me to do better—or do different things—than I currently do. I know my job and my goals; a fluffy mission statement doesn’t affect it at all! A mission statement absolutely doesn’t make a difference, ever.”

The tone was confrontational, and their reluctance to listen to reason bordered on disrespectful. I’ve heard it before, but this time it also got me thinking.

His cynicism had me questioning the deeper value of the work I believe is important. Are Vision, Mission and Value statements so vital to the success of an organization that the absence of such statements would be noticed, or have a negative impact? Is there a risk for an organization to ignore the process of defining clear, compelling and authentic statements—an often difficult process—and conduct business anyway?

Let’s be clear; this person was exceptionally skilled at their profession, and very likely considered an asset to the large organization. Though retired now, they performed their job honourably for decades. The organization was successful during their career, and had been successful for decades before they arrived. This wasn’t a bitter employee simply being critical of management activity.

To show the value of Vision, Mission and Value statements I often tell stories of successful, famous brands—the classic stories that all brand strategy people tell—such as Disney, Starbucks, Apple, etc, and how a shared connection to something more important than cartoons, coffee or computers was actually the driving force behind their success. It’s relatively easy to anchor the brand in a statement, and then fast forward a few dozen years and see the messages, concepts and choices that prove the point.

It’s much harder to show stories of failed brands, and link their failure to a lack of a cohesive, shared purpose.  Until now, I didn’t have any examples of failure in action; the inconceivable crumbling of something iconic and powerful linked directly to a breakdown of the Vision, Mission and Values.

The recent op-ed in the NYTimes from Greg Smith, an employee of Goldman Sachs on his last day of work, has sparked a storm of comments. His claim is clear: Leadership at Goldman Sachs is no longer connected to the mission as he understood it when he started 12 years earlier.

According to Greg, the true values of the organization—the behaviours that get rewarded, recognized and supported—are not aligned with what the company claims. Worse, the things that get rewarded are in conflict with their promise to their customers.

Vision, Mission and Value statements are how every stakeholder can hold an organization—and especially leadership—accountable for delivering the brand as promised.

Anchoring organization’s culture, the statements are non-negotiable—invincible to market pressures, timely promotional slogans or even changes in leadership—because they represent the core beliefs and choices that hold everyone together. Vision, Mission and Value statements, in whatever form, define an organization’s culture, rooting a shared trust that such behaviours and focus will drive mutual success.

From the organization’s culture comes activities and communications to engage people. From the culture emerges relevant products or services or experiences or ideas that people align with and desire. From the culture rises a legacy that transcends one person, creating a community to carry forward new ideas, all in service of the shared vision.

A breakdown in the culture of the organization—being disconnected from a shared purpose beyond profit—is the first sign of failure. Trust in leadership fades, and survival instincts kick in. (Justin Fox with HBR writes an interesting analysis of what happened with Goldman Sachs. Creating shareholder value replaces creating customer value.)

Trust is at the foundation of any successful organization; trust in your team; trust between you and those you serve; trust in the community; trust in mutual success; trust that everyone shares and supports the same values.

Leadership’s role is to give people a cause to believe in, and give them permission—to trust them—to advance that cause. Vision, Mission and Value statements are the touchstone of trust.

You may not care about having the statements, but you’ll miss the trust when it’s gone.

Authenticity is.

Authenticity is a pretty big buzzword in the world of branding. Everyone seems to be talking about it, and it even gets written into strategic documents as a goal. Organizations of all kinds are striving to be more authentic. That’s right—they set a goal of being “authentic”.

So how does your organization become authentic?

Actually, you don’t. Or rather, you already are. The brand you have today—the story that people believe about you—is authentic. Authenticity isn’t something you can choose to do or not do. It’s not something to strive for. Authenticity is revealed as a result of your actions, not the intent.

Each time people experience your organization (through product experiences, advertising, word-of-mouth, …everything) a consistent story is communicated, a little bit at a time. The more experiences, the richer your story becomes.  With each experience, your story—what people believe about your organization—continues to evolve into a concise promise. This is where people discover authenticity. This is your brand.

It’s impossible to behave inauthentically. If people in your organization behave in a manner that is inconsistent with how the world perceives your brand, your story shifts. Through their actions people on your team have simply revealed more of what is authentic.

If an experience is in conflict with your promise, that experience (and your lack of ability to deliver the original promise) becomes part of your authentic brand. Do this enough times, or the first time someone experiences your brand, and ‘failure’—making promises you aren’t prepared keep—becomes part of your authentic brand.

Authenticity is a result, not an intent.

Consider the implications of this when recruiting employees, communicating with stakeholders, selecting vendors and engaging in the community.

Where authenticity matters for your brand strategy is to make sure that the promise you make can be sustained. You need to make sure the story you are telling is the story that will be experienced. You need to manage the actions, not the intent. And not just through the good times (that’s too easy), but through the challenging times. Through grumpy customers and failed suppliers; through economic distress and unforeseen disruptions; through personal issues and nasty competition. These are the moments that our behaviours will be tested, and our true brand—the promises we keep—will be revealed.

That is authenticity.

Follow-up: (Nov 5, 2012) Read The Authenticity Myths for more insights.

True values are a choice.

Being in the business of understanding and defining the cultures that drive organizations, I always take particular interest in what companies state as their “core values”.

I know organizations spend a considerable amount of time defining and articulating values that they hold true. In fact, it’s not rare to hear that a company has spent 12 months or more working through these values, often following long retreats or creative working sessions. Company leaders emerge with a list of words or phrases that are intended to anchor the culture of the organization and inspire their teams. Words like Service, Integrity and Quality flow forth. The marketing department gets excited while the rest of the company reads the list–and goes back to work.

And for the most part, the values are true. In fact, why wouldn’t they be?

Repeatedly going through this process I have come to realize that there are some universal truths in almost any organization. These truths can feel powerful in light of the chaos that we typically experience. But as statements of purpose—the very definition of the organization’s culture—there are some values that are essentially the basis of normal business practices.

Consider the following and very familiar list of corporate values; Integrity / Honesty; Service; Innovation; People; Quality.

On the surface, these values are important. It is only in our jaded and critical mindset that we can hear these as values and assume that they offer any differentiation. But when we look deeper we realize just how hollow these values are at accurately defining a culture.

Hollow not because they aren’t important or lack authenticity; they are hollow because they should be assumed. These values aren’t really a choice. There is no realistic alternative. By simply existing one would expect any organization to have such values, and a contrary position would be unacceptable, or worse; illegal. To make my point, consider values that contradict these;

Integrity / Honesty = Dishonesty. No business would ever claim that dishonesty is a value that they hold dear. Service = Disconnection. No business could ever succeed if it aspired to ignore its customers. Innovation = Stale. No business would ever claim to not look for new products, standards or opportunities. People = No Conscience. No business could succeed if it claimed to treat its employees with the ruthlessness of a machine. Quality = Inconsistency. No business would ever claim that a shoddy product is their goal.

We quickly realize that EVERY organization holds a set of values that are simply part of operating a business. Or being a not for profit, or a social cause, or a service agency, etc… Imagine what would happen if a company said that honesty wasn’t one of its values? Seriously—think about it.

For a stated value to have any real meaning to an organization, it must have an alternative that would be equally valued for someone else.

Stated values are what the company has put forward as the most important characteristics of the organization. They define the culture and the expectations of leadership. Companies put core value out front for employees and customers to share and understand.

So what else can we define? Where can we make choices that will define us? Social values; Political values; Environmental values; Financial values; Cultural values. What are the benchmarks for success and appropriate behaviour in your organization? These values are the ones that people get excited about.

I call these values Drivers, and they are powerful.

Why are they so powerful? Well, first of all they are a choice. Drivers convey a particular attitude that allows—or rather encourages—your company to remain distinct and competitive. Secondly, they generally have an equally valuable contradiction. This contradiction is what allows people to truly understand and align themselves with the brand. And finally—and most importantly—these values are the behaviours that your organization will demonstrate when the going gets tough. When put to the test, your true drivers are your instincts, and you will always live up to these expectations.

Consider a personal example. One of my core values is Laughter. I am lucky enough to work in a creative field that gets away with exploring absurdity at times, and a healthy dose of laughter is not only good, I believe it actually makes the work better. I take my client’s challenges very seriously, but we can share a laugh and still get great work done.

I have met potential clients who aren’t as impressed with life’s quirkiness. They view the nuances of business a little more seriously than I feel comfortable with, and we don’t connect. Frankly, I am okay with that, because I choose not to work with someone who won’t take a moment to laugh. It’s their choice, and plenty of businesses survive without a daily giggle. However, for me it’s not a good project. And it’s not worth it.

Values without valid contradictions have no merit.

So what are your Drivers? What gets you out of bed everyday and what is it that pulls all of your team together? What is it about your organization that truly aligns your stakeholders? I challenge you to examine the values you have defined against the question of options.

Be comfortable in the common values every company shares, but challenge yourself (and your team) to uncover and articulate a deeper motivation. Be proud of your choices, and never compromise.

Are you on a mission statement?

Most companies have mission statements. Some are inspirational, some are mediocre, and a few are utterly pointless. Most are carefully worded statements aimed to capture the activities of the organization in a concise way.

My work brings me face to face with mission statements (and vision statements, and values statements, and mantras, etc…) all the time. Such statements are important for setting a solid foundation for a brand, but too many leaders mistake having a mission statement with actually being on a mission.

Do you get the difference?

Take a moment and dig deep down. Are you truly on a mission? Are you really compelled in the core of your being to pursue the activities of your organization in pursuit of something bigger than just a transaction?

The statement isn’t really the important part. The important part is to understand the mission that you are on, regardless of how you articulate it for everyone else. The important part is that you are doing something that is meaningful to you. Something non-negotiable. Something worth doing.

Too often leaders spend more time debating the wording of the mission statement than they do exploring and confronting their true motivations for action. The effort is based more on sounding valuable rather than being authentic, while not offending anyone and trying to inspire everyone. Instead of being on a mission, organizations end up being on a mission statement. And we all know how well that works.

This is why most mission statements fall flat when shared, even with people who align closely with the organization.

When we think of brands that capture our imagination and thrive, from famous brands to local community brands, it becomes clear that these brands represent the few leaders that are actually on a mission. These leaders have a purpose beyond profit, and they are compelled to act on it. Their mission statement—the collection of words that articulate their mission for everyone else—is really just a simple way to share the their plan with others.

Having a mission statement without being on a mission is the equivalent of having a mug with “World’s Greatest Dad” written on it. It’s not the mug that makes you a great dad, and you can be a great dad without the mug.

You don’t need a mission statement; you need to be on a mission.