Why your service culture sucks.

I’d like to talk a minute about customer service. Ok, maybe somewhere between talk and rant if I’m being totally honest. In so doing, I invite the shedding of conventional dialog around all aspects of service – teaching it, providing it, expecting it, selling it as a tenet of the organization. This won’t be a list of “four things every service culture needs,” or, “how to motivate your service staff.” It’s a deeper conversation about the core identity of service and the role of leadership in facilitating impact. It will also be an incomplete view, because this is a blog and not a book. The goal is to challenge and inspire your thinking, and let you run with it. If you’re ready to go there, come on along for the ride.

The value proposition of great service isn’t really a secret. 5 minutes worth of light research will produce more data about the bottom line impact of customer service than you can handle. Top companies have built their reputations on their service experience. The C-suite has expanded to include Chief Customer Officers, Customer Success Officers, probably half a dozen other iterations of customer-focused leadership. All of this is great news and a natural product of the service economy that we now live in.

As a passionate advocate for service culture, I see and appreciate the value of this shift as a tremendous step forward. At the same time, I still find myself getting tense and annoyed with 80% of the “customer experience” articles, quotes and rants I see in my newsfeed. Even in the most modern, progressive companies they point it in the right direction yet still miss a fundamental truth.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for customer-centric leadership. It’s the not focus on the customer that’s a poor fit. It’s the way we define that focus when trying to solve for customer needs that leads to an all too common fault. The problem, or failure of perspective, is that when we talk about customer service we speak of it as an external condition. To “help the customer succeed,” is to meet service goals, reduce churn, increase per-customer revenue, “add value,” and so on. That’s great, and of course we can and should look at numbers like the correlation of deal size to churn rate, the cost of customer acquisition versus retention, or the likelihood of a customer to increase MRR over the lifespan of the relationship based on perceived value as metrics of success in customer service. But in dealing with revenue goals and performance targets it is all too easy to overlook the essential core of your business – the most crucial and valuable element of your success: your customer service team.

Call me crazy, but I believe that most company-sponsored customer service training initiatives start at the wrong end by viewing “satisfying the customer,” as the primary task, as facilitated by . How to minimize potential for conflict in the delivery of “our brand of service.” “Smile when you dial,” and “5 ways to control the call.” How to live through your workday. It’s all outside-in. It’s all about training the individuals to “feel empowered” while they do the work of the company. While those are all important skills and tactics – you need them if you intend to succeed – they aren’t endemic to a service mindset. To the majority of your service staff, they’re just devices and buzzwords.

The majority of my career has been focused on customer service. I’ve worked in customer service roles, in customer service industries, and consulted on customer service initiatives. Somewhere along the way I became passionate about the value and nature of service as a calling rather than simply a “job,” and I began to notice the delta between what I have experienced to be true and the way in which companies focus (or fail to focus) on their customer service centers. So much so, in fact, that the first inspiration that ultimately led me down the path to consulting actually came after being on the receiving end of a lackluster customer service training that left me feeling frustrated and knowing I could do better than the overpaid, inauthentic suit standing at the front of the room.

I hold the belief, informed by my experience, that true, durable service starts with inspiring and empowering the people who deliver it. Inviting them to open up and think in unconventional terms, and demonstrating that they are really safe and free to do so. Seeding the idea that the individual can derive satisfaction from the delivery of proper service. That people can and should have dreams and goals that are just a little beyond what they can currently achieve. Teaching that always having something to reach for means that as long as you strive for a greater goal and work with it in mind, you’re always moving forward. That is what I care about. Inspiration, creating an atmosphere that promotes the concept that this is your work, and that it matters.

Everybody believes in something, or they want to. We all have an inkling that we want to do some kind of good in either our own lives or the lives of others. A purpose. Even the most downtrodden and forlorn among us, when asked the right questions and given a genuine opportunity to be heard, can identify something within us that we believe in, that matters.

That’s why the film industry has been making money since the Great Depression. It’s why video games are huge and people read fantasy novels and play role-playing games and watch sports. We want heroes in whom we can place ourselves. We want a form upon which we can project all our yearning for greater purpose, the speeches we give to the invisible adversary when we’re alone in our cars or sitting in the waiting room at the dentist’s office, the great conquering general of our fantastic dreams. We see “The Transporter” whip across the screen in his Audi at 120 mph and leap out to dispatch an entire cast of unsavory characters and it isn’t just passive observation. In our minds it is us behind that wheel. We are the ones defusing the bomb, saving the day, getting the girl or the guy… We are the heroes of our own imagination.

This is where our journey starts. This is where the drive to serve – the impulse to perform beyond the scope of “bare-minimum” and to make a greater contribution – and the desire to care for the task rather than perform solely it by rote because it is what is expected and ingrained, is either won or lost. This moment of heroic aspiration requires inspiration and nourishment if it is to grow and flourish into a robust service practice.

Why is it that soldiers perform heroically in the face of chaos and disaster? Why do policemen and firemen persevere through all manner of hardship and obstacles? It’s because they believe. They believe in what they are doing, or rather they believe in something personal to them that makes what they are doing important or necessary.

I hear it said time and time again. “You can’t make someone care. You can’t teach them that.” I disagree. I will concede that it is difficult, not easily done by traditional means of training and not a formulaic process of the familiar. But I would also submit that the deepest obligation of leadership is to create conditions in which the passions and self-empowerment of your people can flourish.

If we are honest and willing to explore the idea, each of us can look into our own lives and identify something we wish to believe in. There is a secret hero within each of us waiting to be unleashed. Each individual has to dig in and do the work, and will need to stay inspired along the way. But if you can open a person’s mind to this kind of thinking, there is no limit to the level of service and dedication you can realize as a result.

Yes, skills are essential. They will need to be trained and measured. But are you putting warm bodies in chairs or are you building a true service culture? Do you just want to throw the phrase around because it makes you sound good, or do you want to be a holistically world class service organization? Do you want incremental compliance and improvement, or do you want breakthrough performance that leaves the competition in the dust?

So let’s say you’re on board with all my high-minded notions of inspirational service culture. What then? How do you make it a reality?

I promised you this wasn’t going to be another list of generic top 5 boxes to check to get the same results as everyone else who reads the article and subscribes to the blog. But if you just have to have something to satisfy your list-reading needs, I went ahead and published a companion piece for just such an occasion. Go ahead and check it out.

Otherwise, I invite you to comment below with your own thoughts and reflections on the subject. Do you agree with anything I’ve said, or do you think I’ve completely lost my marbles? Can you find value in taking this perspective, or do you wish you had the last 10 minutes of your life back? Either way, I’d love to hear from you.