The Reality of Service Culture
By Christine Hill Hobbi
In today’s competitive arena, organizational culture is not just a topic for company executives. Organizational culture influences every division and department, every executive and every employee. To understand why, we simply need to ask “What is organizational culture?”
Organizational culture is the unique blend of values and beliefs that define an organization. It is also the way we interact with one another, how we speak, and the attitudes and feelings we have about our company. In this light, it is easy to see how different companies have different organizational cultures. But let’s take this a step further. If something called organizational culture really exists, is it possible that something called service culture exists?
Service culture is very real. Service culture is more specific than organizational culture, because everything goes back to customer service. Instead of talking about values and beliefs in general, we must talk about our values and beliefs about customer service. How, specifically, do we provide service to our customers and to each other? How to we communicate with customers and act around them? All of these things define service culture. Those companies, from executive to employee, that embrace the idea of service culture and work to improve it are the model organizations of our time. In their book, “Building A Customer Service Culture”, Dr. Mario Martinez and Bob Hobbi defines four dimensions that can profile any organization and the service it provides.
First, both technical skills and what we might call “relationship” skills are part of every excellent organization’s service culture. Twenty years ago, a mechanic, line services employee, pilot or other technical person might have thought that as long as they possessed the technical skill to do their jobs, then they were assured of a job. Today, that is no longer enough. True, customers expect that everyone has excellent technical skills; but they also expect effective, friendly communications—what might be referred to as relationship skills.
Second, competitive service organizations (and we are ALL service organizations) understand that the culture of service delivery happens both outside and inside the organization. Many of us instinctively understand that we must apply technical and relationship skills during the delivery of service to our paying customers, but outstanding companies understand that those same skills are needed when delivering services within its own organization. Thus, the second dimension of a service culture directly speaks to the effectiveness of service delivery to external and internal customers.
In sum, technical and relationship skills must be applied to internal and external customers.
Dr. Martinez and Mr. Hobbi describe four possible service culture profiles: technical/internal; relationship/internal; technical/external; and relationship/external. Ultimately, an organization’s total customer service culture is a combination of all four profiles, though usually one cultural profile is more dominant than the others. The concept of customer service culture can be applied to an entire organization or individual departments within that organization.
The first customer service culture profile is called the Insider’s culture. The Insider’s culture pays attention to internal customers and the relationships between and among them. In a word, the Insider’s culture is about teamwork. The second profile is called the Technical culture, which relies on the technical capabilities of employees. Aviation and IT related companies often have strong Technical cultures, because employees have high levels of technical knowledge, skill, or ability and rely on that for organizational survival. On the other hand, a Market culture, which is the third profile, relies on assessing the external customers’ needs and mobilizes or finds the technical capabilities necessary to meet those needs. Finally, the Customer’s (4th profile) culture is sensitive to relationships and communications with the external customer. This is the organization that believes it is all about the relationship with the external customer that will lead to success.
The Insider’s culture pays attention to internal customers and the relationships between and among them. But what exactly does this mean?
An organization that pays attention to the relationships between and among internal customers is basically interested in making sure that the people who work within that company (the employees) have productive, positive relationships. The description of a regional airport somewhere in Texas perhaps best demonstrates the Insider’s culture. (The name of the airport will be changed so as not to put the organization on the spot, even though the example is complimentary). Employees at Don’t Mess with Texas Airport (DMTA) regularly receive training in areas related to conflict, communication, and customer service. Airport management at DMTA regularly asks employees for suggestions on operations, and whether there is anything that management can do to improve the airport’s service and work environment. Problems do crop up at DMTA, especially between departments, but employees have learned that miscommunication is part of every organization—the key for every DMTA employee, however, is not to take miscommunications and disagreements personally but to focus on the larger goal of creating a positive workplace, which is something everyone can agree upon.
DMTA is not a perfect organization, but the employees work to communicate with each other and to resolve conflict. Management has been proactive in its communications with employees and across departments. All of these are goals worth working toward, and all define a strong Insider’s culture. A strong Insider’s culture does not mean the absence of problems; it simply means that people work together to solve them.
Technical proficiency within an organization has to do with the knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA) of those who work within that organization. Do they have the requisite KSA to execute, technically, on delivering the product or service that the organization promises to provide to its customers? If so, then the Technical Culture within the organization is likely strong, provided that two other elements exist: training and effective standard operating procedures (SOPs). Training is critical so that everyone, from line services to customer service representatives, can grow their expertise and keep up with current developments in the field. Effective standard operating procedures are developed by expert people and ensure efficiency and consistency.
Within most industries, there is a natural tendency for employees and managers to rely on their real and perceived technical capabilities for organizational, departmental, or group survival. This “reliance” on technical expertise is related technological advancement and the highly skilled individuals who work with that technology. If we look at training budgets for most organizations and where they spend their training dollars, it is in the area of technical training.
Indeed, a strong Technical Culture is a prerequisite for success, alone it is not sufficient—even within technical industries (IT, Aviation, Healthcare). A disproportionate emphasis on the Technical Culture means that a department or organization is too inwardly focused.
The Market Culture and Customer Culture are both focused on the external customer, but the difference lies in the nature of that focus. The Market Culture seeks to discern technical wants and needs of the customer; the Customer Culture seeks to understand the feelings and perceptions of customers through effective interpersonal communications. Perhaps there is a relationship between the two, but there are important differences, from a customer service standpoint. Consider the powerful truth of the following point: it is not whether you solve a customer’s problem in exactly the way they want it to be solved (technical solution); what is important is that the customer feels like you are doing all you can to address their problems and that you are sensitive to their situation (relationship oriented solution).
Consider a customer who is angry because his luggage has been lost. The customer demands that the luggage be found immediately. Now, this demand may be impossible to meet. From a Market Culture perspective, if we are not able to solve the problem immediately, we have, technically, failed to meet the customer’s need. The Market Culture would predict that our failure to find the luggage immediately will soon be reflected in lower customer ratings and profitability. Luckily, a good dose of Customer Culture will almost guarantee that ratings or profitability will not plummet. In fact, if we play our cards right, the result may be quite the opposite. The Customer Culture recognizes that we may “smooth” situations if we address the relationship side of customer interactions. Research on customer service shows that we can win the customer and actually increase satisfaction and loyalty even if we do not solve the problem immediately—as long as the customer feels like we are a) listening to his complaints and concerns empathetically, and b) making every effort to provide alternatives and possibly compensation in other areas. This example points out how important it is to make sure every employee is trained in the finer skills of communications, relationships, and human behavior. For these are the areas that define the effectiveness with which an organization deploys the power of the Customer Culture.
At the end of the day, customers make their judgments based on feelings and emotions that are shaped by the organization’s efforts to build relationships with them. Technical results are important, but every successful professional knows that bottom line results are, in the long-run, dependent on the quality of relationships that one is able to build with customers. That is the power of the Customer Culture.
The Market Culture contrasts with the Technical Culture in one main respect: it is outwardly focused on the customer and external constituents rather than inwardly focused on the talents of the people within the organization. The KSA of individuals within the organization are used as a tool to respond to what the customers want or to shape their perceptions. Naturally, then, Market Culture driven customer service organizations are also very responsive to customer inputs and perceptions, particularly as they pertain to the technical aspects of whatever product or service is offered. Thus, issues related to design and delivery become central. Market driven service cultures have mechanisms in place to gather this feedback or track it, and they deploy the necessary resources to address any problems, concerns, issues, or needs. Market driven cultures are innovative, as they strive to provide new services or product features to gain that competitive edge.
Another feature of the Market Culture is the focus on numbers and the bottom line. Managers and leaders of Market driven cultures are very results oriented, and they are almost obsessed with numerical results that measure everything from profitability to customer service ratings.
In the end, every company should pay heed to the market. However, obsession with the market may skew management action and wreak havoc on employee morale. We must remember that industry lists and quarterly profitability statements are short-term indicators of market success, but these indicators are susceptible to manipulation and fleeting customer attitudes and perceptions. Thus, like every other culture we have profiled, there are characteristics of the Market Culture that we must nurture within our organizations, but those characteristics must not be the sole focus of our attention.
Balanced Service Culture
There are four service culture profiles that we covered: Insider’s Culture, Technical Culture, Market Culture, and Customer’s Culture. Every department or organization, from airports to hotels, has a unique service culture that is a blend of each of these profiles. In most organizations, one profile may be more prominent than the others. The key to a successful operation and happy customers is finding a balance among all four cultural profiles.
Truly excellent organizations consciously seek to understand themselves—and the service culture profiles are an effective way to do that. With this understanding comes an honest assessment of cultural strengths and weaknesses, which in turn leads to purposeful improvements that create lasting competitive advantage.
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