Operationalizing a Customer Service Culture

Building the ideal corporate culture doesn’t happen by chance. If you are a leader of a company or organization and you want to instill a customer service culture, how do you make it happen? To become a customer-centric company requires first building an employee-centric workplace.

If you want your customers to be amazed – and loyal, and refer their family and friends to you, etc. – what you need to do first is amaze the employees.

If you want a real-life example that proves this concept, look no further than Ace Hardware. If I asked you to think of a word that describes the Ace chain of retail hardware stores, chances are your response would be “helpful.” And there’s good reason for that. Ace stores are billed as The Helpful Place and they work hard to truly operationalize the word helpful into their culture. That is their version of customer service and what gives them a competitive edge, even when faced with competition from much larger hardware and home improvement stores such as Lowe’s and Home Depot. They attract customers by living up to the promise of being the most helpful hardware stores on the planet. Not just nice, not just friendly – helpful. By delivering that level of service, they are able to win in a very competitive industry.

And, as I mentioned earlier, the secret – for Ace and other successful companies – is that they don’t begin by focusing on the customer. To truly become a customer-focused company, they first focus on their employees.

This is not a new concept at Ace. It isn’t a temporary customer service theme. It has always been part of the Ace philosophy. Ever since the first Ace Hardware store opened in 1924, it has held to this belief that serving the customer begins by first serving the employee. They hire the right people and train them not only in the technical details of the job, but also to deliver the Ace brand of helpful service. As management and employees treat each other with respect and dignity, they have a model for how to treat the customers.

Other companies understand and live by this philosophy as well. I have always been a big fan of Southwest Airlines Chairman Emeritus Herb Kelleher, and one reason why is that he believed in putting employees first. By doing so, he said, the employees will in turn treat the customers (or passengers) well. And what happens when customers are well taken care of? They are happy, and they reward the company with repeat business. And who else is happy? The shareholders! And it all goes back to the idea of focusing on employees first.

You want to aim for alignment in your company. Ever been in a car whose front end is out of alignment? It causes the entire car to shake. In business, if the employees don’t experience the same treatment, promise and value that you want for the customer, then the customer experience can be shaky and the entire company can suffer.

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