4/24/2017 | Charles V. Firlotte


At my recent annual physical I was reminded how each and every employee of any organization is an emissary of that institution and bears the corresponding responsibility. As I walked into the reception area and approached the young lady at the desk, her gaze remained fixed on her computer screen. She told me, in a voice devoid of any warmth, that she would be with me momentarily, never once glancing my way.

She did little to change the initial impression of her as an uncaring functionary, clueless to the fact that the men, women, and children who visit this practice are not just patients of the medical staff but are indeed her customers as well. As a customer, the quality of our interaction—the level of attention I receive; the “warmth” of the exchange—matters to me.  

Driving back to my office I could not help but ruminate on just how often most employees fail at creating positive interactions with customers. From the guys and gals working at the supermarket who lament loudly that the work shift is going painfully slow to the cabbie who offers a primordial grunt as you slide into the backseat, evidence of caring about the customer is pitifully low. The experience is seldom any better via phone; too often it’s seemingly impossible to even get a company rep on the line. More service providers than enough fail to comprehend that the customer experience is a blend of the human interaction and the emotions that are evoked and measured against the customer’s expectations. It’s a function of process and people, and both sides need to be addressed to ensure superior service delivery.  

Yet it’s not only the employees’ fault. As leaders, we need to create a culture of excellence in service delivery, and recognize that doing so doesn’t hinge on having a quality product or service. (My physician himself is excellent; but all the steps of the entire experience should be of a similar caliber to the service he provides.) Poor service usually happens because an issue comes up with some business process essential to service delivery and that issue never gets corrected. Instead, the organization “works around” the problem. 

The result is a less efficient work environment, a customer that is not being served well, and an employee who can and will become frustrated, and eventually, apathetic and disengaged. Apathy and disengagement spread from one employee to another, infecting even those processes that weren’t problematic to begin with. Thus a vicious cycle starts, affecting employees and customers. 

There are three steps to creating a culture of service; as is often the case, the fix is simple, but not easy. 
1. Designing unobstructed pathways so customers can do business with you in a manner that is both easy and pleasant (process). 
2. Selecting individuals who have the right temperament and desire to serve others and see it as their primary responsibility (people).
3. Engaging your workforce in the journey of continuous improvement (both people and process). 
Of these three, employee engagement is the most difficult, as it encompasses both people and process.

Automated attendants have their place and are great if all you need is your account balance, or the hours of your local big box store. But many of these are incredibly frustrating with unacceptably long wait times. Their preponderance and the amount of frustration they cause suggest that most service providers have never put themselves in their customers’ shoes. 

At Aquarion Company, a regulated utility that opened its doors in 1857, we put a cross-functional group of employees together to resolve how we could respond more expediently to customer issues. We came to realize that when a developer or potential new customer would contact us to discuss a potential new “hook up,” our process was far too clunky and time-consuming. When this team dug into the process we learned that we find about certain customer concerns far too late and discuss them way too much, exactly the opposite of what we were trying to do. We have since made changes on how we capture, aggregate, and resolve issues in a much timelier manner.

Hiring for attitude and training for skill is a philosophy that sets apart great service providers from the also-rans.  When on the hunt for good customer service folks, you want to find someone with a service ethos, who is both smart and teachable. Look for the gal or guy at Starbucks, the barista, who remembers your best libation and serves it up with both grace and charm, or the customer representative at your local bank, who seems to be continuously upbeat and personable. And listen to your employees, who can and will recommend friends and acquaintances. They will intuitively understand that your bar is high and recommend top talent.  

Your talent scouts, your HR team and others, should be on the lookout for talent even when you do not have an open position. Your protocol for hiring should include getting employees involved in the interview—including someone who does or has done the job you are hiring for. Over time you will be able to determine common traits in employees that make them a great “fit” for customer-facing jobs, and look for those traits in prospective new hires. 

One of the most glaring causes of so much mediocrity in the delivery of service is the lack of employee engagement. Employees feel little or no true connection to their employer, and the paycheck simply becomes the quid pro quo for duties performed. The emotional energy that manifests itself in alertness of mind and hopefulness of spirit and happiness of heart is expended elsewhere. In “State of the American Manager” (2015) Gallup suggests that only 30% of American workers are engaged. 

At Aquarion Company, we employ Lean Six Sigma to correct and improve our business processes and engage employees on a deeper level. This leads to both enhanced efficiency and allows our employees ease of access when responding to customer requests, meaning we serve both constituencies better. The accompanying training provided to our green and black belts has injected enthusiasm in our employee population. They are effectively in control of their work environment, and it shows that someone (management) does give a damn!  

In a 2016 J.D. Power survey Aquarion was first among all other service providers in the northeast of the U.S. The simple fact of the matter is that service providers have to continuously focus on the details of the business, the “small stuff” that allow the customer to have an experience that is fulfilling. Our employees have made it easier for a new customer to do business with us, and have paved the way for existing customers to be served in an efficient manner. Our “first and only call resolution” metric stands at 99%.

While there are a number of factors that can contribute to elevating the level of engagement of your workforce, none is more important than having a compelling vision of who you are and why your customer is your predominant focus, providing consistent communication to your workforce about the business and where it is headed, and having competent managers who actually manage performance, who care about their bench, and establish clear expectations for the forward trail.  In creating the big picture, you can’t lose sight of the small things. 

One of the better examples of doing this and understanding how the small pieces create the big picture is Howard Schultz’ return to Starbucks in early 2008. Between 2006 and 2008 Starbucks profits had tanked and the stock had fallen some 75%. Shultz believed that Starbucks wounds were inflicted from within, that the company had strayed from its core values and had lost focus on the customer. While Starbucks had a fundamental strategy issue (“who do we want to be?”) Schultz tackled the problem at many levels and rolled his sleeves up and got in the trenches.  He realized “the fix” had to go beyond a strategic redirection. 

“Like a doctor who measures a patient’s height and weight every year without checking blood pressure or heart rate, Starbucks was not diagnosing itself at a level of detail that would help ensure its long-term health. We predicated future success on how many stores we opened during a quarter instead of taking the time to determine whether each of those stores would in fact, be profitable. We thought in terms of millions of customers and thousands of stores instead of one customer, one partner, and one cup of coffee at a time.”  -Howard Schultz, Onward.

By focusing on such “details” as distribution and partner resources, Schultz returned the company to its former majesty, customers returned and investors were rewarded. If you had bought Starbucks stock in 2006 and held it, by the summer of 2016 your return on that investment would have been a resounding 225%.

Creating a culture of service is attainable and within reach. It requires a sustained commitment to your workforce, ensuring they feel like they belong, and making it easy for them to provide knock-your-socks-off customer care.