By Drew Vass
Times have changed in the world of customer service, from fast-food restaurants to large corporations. Classic, static-filled “uh-huh’s” aren’t chiming out of as many drive-through intercoms. Now they amplify answers like “My pleasure” and even “Thank you for your business.”
Call it the effects of a social media, online reviews–crazed society. Or, call it plain crazy. But independent experts suggest that a customer-centric business strategy can and will add to any business’ bottom line. BIG BUILDER tracked down business leaders from outside the construction industries who say their companies prove that fact. They suggest that designing every aspect of your business around the perspective of the customer not only increases referrals and repeat business, but also produces happy, more satisfied employees who do the heavy lifting for you, by living to serve your customers. Here are their four steps to achieving optimal customer service.
Step 1: Make the decision
Being customer-centric starts in one place—there needs to be a firm decision at the executive level, backed by complete buy-in.
“The decision has to be made that your company needs to be customer focused,” says Shep Hyken, customer service expert, author, speaker, and one-time radio show host.
While that decision may have been an obvious one for a company like Ritz-Carlton (following the trail to success laid by its Boston location; see sidebar, p. 18), not all companies face such clear-cut directions.
Idan Shpizear, founder and CEO of 911 Restoration, a home restoration company that specializes in water damage and disaster recovery solutions, says he founded his company with the emotional needs of his customers in mind, but that motive wasn’t always translated through the actions of his employees or his company’s practices.
“Our competition tends to get caught up on drying out a person’s house and what they need to do in order to get paid by the insurance company,” Shpizear says. “But a homeowner isn’t just calling us because their house is flooded. They’re calling because their lives are in utter chaos.”
In 2014, Shpizear and his team realized the company’s numbers weren’t where they should be, and they began to explore possible reasons. 911’s brand is based on the concept of providing a “fresh start,” in chorus with its customers’ needs, but Shpizear says that brand message failed to span from marketing to customer relations. Believing that 911’s success depends on that mindset, he set out to change his company’s culture, aligning it with his original vision.
“Sometimes the distance between the client and management grows too wide,” Shpizear says. “You have to connect the team in your corporate offices to the experience of the client—what they need and what they’re going through.”
For Shpizear, one of the most important adjustments to his company includes creating a proper mindset among his employees for approaching emotionally sensitive situations. He involved the entire firm in crafting a new mission statement, along with what he calls its “10 commandments,” such as “Be the difference,” and “Be the positive in every negative.” To help connect employees to those statements, he asks each one to select a commandment to display on their uniforms and business cards.
“Over time, employees begin to select the shirt that has the statement they want—the one they relate to and feel, because that’s the conversation they want to have,” he says. “Once you take ownership of something like that, you change your mindset and behavior to ensure you’re living what you’re promoting.”
Over the course of his company’s changes, Shpizear says he came to realize that its new practices weren’t for everybody. Which is precisely why experts advise aligning any new customer-centric operating philosophy with the right staff members.
Shpizear says he looks for employees whose résumés indicate that they’re interested in self-improvement, suggesting that those individuals are more likely to be self-aware and willing to improve their mindsets.
Step 2: Hire—and fire—accordingly
When Brian Scudamore, founder and CEO of O2E Brands, parent company of 1-800-GOT-JUNK, set out to bring a high level of professionalism to what he describes as a “notoriously shady” industry (junk removal), he found himself in a difficult position with his employees.
“I didn’t believe they truly believed in my philosophy,” he says. “They were more focused on just getting the job done than on trying to support our [new] methods.”
Those methods, Scudamore says, are simple: Provide a consistent experience through friendly, uniformed workers who show up on time in clean trucks. Five years into his business, when Scudamore realized that his staff wasn’t buying into his philosophy, he fired all 11 of his employees.
“It’s hard to do and it’s painful, but by getting it right, your business will grow and prosper,” he says. “You cannot afford to have one wrong person in the wrong seat. If you think to yourself, ‘We can’t afford to lay everyone off and start over.’ The fact is—you can’t afford not to.”
Experts support Scudamore’s decision by suggesting that you cannot align the wrong employees with the right philosophy. But they also say that while it may be necessary to “clean house,” you may not have to resort to such measures.
“If your new culture doesn’t fit an employee, or they just aren’t able to get it right, they’re going to grow tired or frustrated with that and, chances are, they’re going to move on,” Hyken says.
When Zappos underwent major cultural changes in 2005, Erica Javellana, speaker of the house for the company’s Insights department (Zappos encourages its employees to create their own titles), says the wrong employees began to jump ship. “Some people said they weren’t for what they viewed as a ‘hippy dippy, kumbayah’ culture,” she says. “So they left.”
To ensure that new hires are a proper match for the company, Zappos now conducts two interviews: one for skill set; another that Javellana describes as a “culture interview.”
“If folks don’t pass the culture interview, they don’t get hired,” she says, adding that the firm has no qualms about later letting someone go who is not a good fit but managed to slip through the cultural screening process.
“Our CEO decided that we needed to focus on company culture and trust that it was going to drive our brand strength, improve our customers’ experiences even further, and add to employee productivity,” Javellana says. “If company culture is going to be the driver for us, that’s what we have to do.”
Step 3: Enable emotional connections
Part of the idea behind hiring the right types of people involves relying on their innate abilities. Rather than directing them on what they should do in each situation, you’re trusting them to stay plugged into the moment and to do what’s right for the customer.
“We invest a lot of autonomy and trust in our employees,” Javellana says. “We hire adults, so we treat them like adults. We’re a company that doesn’t have a lot of policies, but more self-management.”
Diana Oreck, vice president of the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center, says Ritz-Carlton expects its employees to improvise to craft unique experiences and emotional connections with the company’s customers.
“You can’t give legendary service if you’re on auto-pilot,” she says. “If you don’t have your ears and eyes open, you’re not going to spot the opportunities to go above and beyond.” She cites a situation in which a member of the cleaning staff finds a button on the floor, then, after spotting the corresponding jacket, they take the time to sew it on for the customer.
Those moments add up. Javellana says Zappos asks its employees to spend as much time on the phone with its customers as possible (despite being an Internet-based business, the company encourages its customers to call in) even when they don’t make a sale. “But you help the customer—walking them through the experience of shopping,” she says.
So it may come as no surprise that experts, as well as companies that have redesigned themselves to be more customer-centric, say you have to staff appropriately and consider those costs a part of your investment.
“If you aren’t appropriately staffed, you can aspire all day long to provide a great customer experience,” Oreck says. “But you can’t.”
The bottom line is this: Happy, energetic, thoughtful, empowered employees will do the heavy lifting for you.
“If you walk around our offices, you’re going to see smiling, happy people,” Scudamore says of O2E’s companies. “We hire them that way and then we keep them that way by empowering them to do what’s right for the customer, which makes them feel good about what they do.”
Step 4: Training still matters
All of this happy-go-lucky autonomy doesn’t mean you shouldn’t train your employees. Javellana says every new Zappos employee undergoes four weeks of training. But beyond basic job functions and policies, companies tell us that they focus mainly on cultural training and motivation.
“You aren’t training them to interact with customers; you’re creating a culture,” Hyken says.
Ritz-Carlton, for example, holds a daily lineup three times per day (once for each shift), 365 days out of the year.
“In our corporate offices, from 9:05 a.m. to 9:20 a.m.—every single day—we spend time aligning with our culture,” Oreck says.
Hyken says that those moments count as training. For example, he says you may ask your staff to share stories about obstacles that threatened to get in the way of connecting with a customer, along with how they handled the situation. “That counts as training,” he says. “You’re learning from one another.”
Fine-tuning those inner workings to fit with a new company culture is subjective, and there is no blanket formula. Going forward, each company must backtrack its decisions all the way to a customer experience perspective—from the executive level down to how it cleans its toilets. Even when it doesn’t appear to make sense, experts say: Just do it.
“Employees have to recognize the urgency of acting out your vision,” Hyken says. “Everyone has to feel like everyone’s job is riding on it.”