customer experience

How reasonable would it be to hold a shipping dock worker responsible for the quality of the products in the boxes he or she is shipping? So how reasonable is it for managers to hold the final deliverer responsible for the quality of the products or services he or she is delivering?

The person on the front serving line is a symptom carrier of their organization’s processes, systems, and culture. Rarely are they the source of the problem. While he or she may be contributing to low service delivery, blaming him or her is not only unfair, it’s misdirected.

The cause of this confusion is that people are visible, but the systems and culture shaping their behaviors are mostly invisible. So, when something goes wrong, it’s easy to trace the problem back to the last touch point and lay the blame there.

When a good person works in a bad culture, the culture usually wins. This has become a truism called the “85/15 Rule.” This research shows when errors or service breakdowns are traced back to the root cause, about 85% of the time, the fault lies in the system, processes, structure, or practices of the organization. Only about 15% of the services problems can be traced back to someone who didn’t care or wasn’t conscientious enough.

Many attempts to improve customer service levels are smile training programs. These send “you’re the problem” messages to frontline servers. And they do little to address 85% of the issues frustrating customers. How much does a smiley and “empathetic” server satisfy you if the food’s terrible, flight cancelled, product defective, or invoice a mess? If senior management truly wants to find the source of their organization’s customer service shortfalls, the place to start is a deep look in the mirror.

Improving customer service and quality levels isn’t as simple as dunking service providers in a training program and dangling some incentives at them. Sustained and continuously improving service/quality is the result of strong leadership and organization effectiveness.

Building a higher-performing culture has many moving parts. It can get pretty complex, but a few keys stand out:

  • Internal culture and leadership brand must align with the external brand — despite how marketing might try to position the company.
  • An unfiltered feedback system keeps leaders from confusing their desired culture with their actual culture.
  • Three to four core values are the bedrock of culture. These must be central to hiring, promotions, performance management, succession planning, HR systems, recognition, and mergers/acquisitions, to transform values from rhetoric to reality.
  • It’s a virtuous circle — better leaders make better cultures, and better cultures make better leaders. The opposite — vicious circle — is also true.
  • Most companies with enduring greatness have a culture of both purposeful profits and profitable purpose.
  • Many organizations believe they have communication problems. What they often have are leadership problems. Team members see the messages loud and clear.

Visioning a high-performance culture without effective action is hallucination. Talk without strong follow-through perpetuates the delusion. Are you walking your talk?