The sun beat down on the back of my neck. It was a scorching heat most people in Brazil have learned to accept, but I couldn’t bare it. I had just finished making a presentation to a room full of executives at an annual retreat. I couldn’t wait to jump into a taxi, rip off my coat, and breathe some cool air conditioning. A line of taxis were waiting; some looked new, others a little worse. One stood out like a beacon of pure refreshment—a shiny coat of sparkling blue paint made it appear perfectly maintained.
I jumped into the taxi and asked the driver to crank the air conditioning full blast. He did, but only hot air and dust came blowing through the vents. Then the engine sputtered and clunked as warning lights flashed on the dashboard. The driver explained the air conditioning didn’t work, and he nervously turned off the fan. I had been wooed by a shiny coat of paint.
Now let me ask about your company’s service. Is it just a shiny coat of paint that looks good on the outside but sputters and clunks when you really need it?
TIDYING UP THE SURFACE
Ask any doctor to cure a disease with a bandage. Ask any accountant to make bad numbers look good. Or ask an advertising agency to create beautiful packaging for a horrible product. It seems silly, a waste of time, a false and futile effort. Yet, as I travel the world meeting with some of the largest companies, I find that many approach their service with a shiny coat of paint.
They seem to be thinking only on the surface. Isn’t service what the customers see—the smiley faces and polite gestures? Can’t we just tell the front lines to do a better job and raise their level of service? Or can’t we simply hang some big posters with slogans that tell everyone we’re really committed to service? The answer is no.
Many organizations want to be service leaders. They want to turn their customers into evangelists. They want people to tell legendary stories about their service. They want referrals, recommendations, repeat orders, bigger market share. Yet too many of these would-be leaders try to fix their service problems or build a service culture by simply slapping on a fresh coat of paint or placing a meager bandage of advertising over the truth. Well, that’s not going to work, and that’s not how the companies recognized for outstanding service got there in the first place.
Consider this. Amid a crushing economic recession, while many famous names in finance collapsed, a client of mine in Singapore became the largest insurer in the country for life, motor, and health insurance. How did they do it? They transformed their approach to service starting from the inside of the organization and working out. Before asking their agents, brokers, and distributors to give customers and prospects better service, they built a stronger service culture inside the organization.
How do you boost your service from the inside out?
1. Declare Service a Top Priority: A business has many objectives: Sell more, cut costs, go faster, ship now, beat the competition. But all these can be sustained only if you satisfy those you serve and they come back for more. You must declare service a top priority and keep it there, especially when it might be forgotten. Make your declaration publicly to those you lead and keep it at the forefront in all that you do.
2. Everyone Serves Someone: It doesn’t matter if you lead a front-facing sales team, a back office operation, or a shared services function. Your purpose is to serve someone else. If you don’t make that clear to everyone on your team, you’re enabling a breakdown in service. All employees must understand who they serve and how to create value for colleagues or paying customers.
3. Enable Service Leadership from All Levels: If you’re going to ask people to give better service, you must empower them to become service leaders. Leading service from all levels means every employee takes personal responsibility for providing better service in every situation the position empowers him or her to reach. Service leadership must come from the top—but it can also be embraced at the bottom and encouraged and enabled everywhere in between.
4. Don’t Be Wooed By Shiny Things That Don’t Work: Building an uplifting service culture from the inside out is not an easy or overnight task. And although you may find it alluring, especially in the heat of the moment, to leap into a short-term solution, jump on a new mantra, or approve a new advertising campaign, you must do the real work of educating yourself and those around you, ensuring you have the tools to build a successful service strategy for the long haul. Otherwise, you’ll end up like I did, asking the taxi driver to turn around so I could start the process all over again.