Recently I was walking through a distribution warehouse to meet a client. Hanging on the wall were safety posters instructing employees how to lift heavy boxes. Most of us have seen these posters many times. This was the first time I stopped to read one.
"Ron, are you ready to get started with the meeting?" asked the vice-president showing me around the building.
"I want to read this," I replied. "Can I take a second?"
As you can imagine, the VP's facial expression registered confusion over my interest in a standardized safety poster.
Soon I was seated in the boardroom with a table full of executives. The conversation focused on an obvious lack of performance that was affecting the company's bottom line. "Mr. Kaufman," said the chief executive. "You're a service guru. We already have a fantastic service department. And we don't get many customer complaints. But this is a cultural issue. Is this really something you can help with?"
Don't Leave It to a Department
I've heard these types of comments for more than 20 years, in all corners of the globe and inside some of the world's most recognized heavyweight organizations. The perception of many companies is that service is something handled by a department or a specific job title. It's something only necessary to customer satisfaction.
"Would you mind if we talked about your safety posters?" I asked the CEO.
My seemingly odd question captured the CEO's attention. Safety posters offer a simple, best practice to lift anything heavy, like a package, a tool—or even an entire culture. The posters instruct employees to stretch properly, position their body carefully, and use their strongest muscles. Plus, they tell employees to study and practice proper habits continuously.
When it comes to uplifting a culture—engaging people, motivating people, building loyalty, increasing performance, and creating a sustainable advantage—many companies pass by service as a solution, because somehow the concept has been improperly labeled.
I define service like this: taking action to create value for someone else. Those are powerfully simple words. So consider the impact of an uplifting service culture, a shared purpose within every aspect of your business, interaction, and transaction, from the boardroom down through the front line, where everyone focuses on creating value for someone else both internally and externally. Imagine the effect on performance, engagement, customer loyalty, employee retention, value, and competitive advantage.
"Let's talk about the basic instructions for lifting anything," I said to the group. "Let's use the instructions of a safety poster to talk about building an uplifting service culture."
1. Stretch. Yes, there are calisthenics for your culture. Stretch your mind and your old habits. Get the creativity flowing. Ask the big questions of why: Why do we need to change? Why service? Why now?
2. Position yourself. Lifting a culture requires proper positioning and support from all levels. Leadership must lead service. And everyone else must make himself or herself a service leader.
3. Use your strong muscles. The architecture of your company is akin to physiology. Muscles need flexing. Blocks need building. The building blocks of your culture, such as communication, recognition, vision, and metrics, need shaping. Analyze each block to understand which needs improvement.
4. Study. Educate your team with continuous exercise and understanding. Just because I read the safety poster once doesn't mean I will perform properly. True education means I can perform based on the knowledge I have acquired and the practices I have learned.
5. Practice. Results really pay off here. Practice is the action of continually seeking improvement. It's the correcting, steering, and adjusting to find continued success.
There is superhuman strength in every culture. Look at the heavyweights in the world, such as Ritz-Carlton (MAR), Nordstrom (JWN), Disney (DIS), Singapore Airlines (SIA), Southwest (LUV), Nokia (NOK), Apple (AAPL), Amazon (AMZN), and Zappos. What's their strongest muscle? It's a culture based on service—an uplifting service culture.