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Can You Really Overhaul A Nation’s Customer Service Culture?

By Ron Kaufman, author of “Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet” In a harsh global economy, great service is the price of admission. Companies whose cultures aren’t built around the ability and the willingness — no, the eagerness — to delight the customer won’t survive. You know this. And if you’re a leader at global enterprise, no doubt you’ve gained more than a few gray hairs worrying about it. It’s true: Transforming a culture that crosses many boundaries is no small task. But here's a question that might put it all in perspective: If an entire nation can build a service-based brand and culture, what’s stopping YOU? If you’ve never heard of Mauritius, take note. This small island nation is now doing what your company can and should be doing — and it’s starting to do it very well. Before the global recession, Mauritius was a popular vacation destination for Europeans. In recent years, though, it has struggled to compete for the reduced number of tourists coming out of Europe. So one of the nation’s largest hospitality companies, LUX* Resorts (at the time named Naiade Resorts), decided to take on a gargantuan task — to contribute to the national culture with a powerful dose of uplifting service. Mauritians are naturally hospitable people — so much so that cruise companies regularly recruit them to work on their ships. But the competition in global tourism is intense, with the Maldives, Seychelles, Bali, Phuket, Jamaica, Bahamas, and many other locations offering sun and sandy beaches. The nation and the people of Mauritius needed to set themselves apart, to express their service brand and culture to the rest of the world. So LUX* Resorts kicked off an uplifting service transformation, challenging themselves, the nation, and every member of their team to break away from the past. Using “caterpillar to butterfly” as its metaphor, the company transitioned from Naiade Resorts to LUX* Resorts and transformed its culture through actionable service education programs. Then, the national airline — where Mauritius reaches out to the rest of the world — followed suit with a similar program called “Stepping UP Together.” Why did the people of Mauritius think such a cultural transformation would even work? Because Singapore had blazed the trail before them. During the 1990s when manufacturing and administrative jobs were being outsourced (sound familiar?), the city-state needed to reinvent itself. And so, starting with its Changi Airport and expanding to businesses throughout the nation, Singapore set out to become the uplifting service capital of the world. It was a transformation of attitudes from command to creativity, and of behaviors from compliance and control to compassion and concern. This national effort has become increasingly successful through the years. And because Singapore is a microcosm of the world, what works there can work in your company, your organization, your career, and your life. These nations should serve as harbingers of hope for corporations struggling to keep customers happy in an increasingly competitive global economy, he adds. When you can’t compete on product or price, you can always compete on service. For Singapore and Mauritius, the literal survival of their citizens depended on their making a change. Well, for companies that want to be around five years from now, the imperative is just as great. Own a service brand. Build your service culture. Find ways to continuously add service value, or your company will not survive. I've worked with countless organizations and governments over the years, and I've discovered a clearly defined architecture for engineering a powerful and uplifting service culture. Here are just a few of its building blocks:

Stay covered with great leadership.

True service leadership is not a demand for better performance pointed at the frontline service department. It’s not a campaign slogan that gets splashed across the wall. True service leadership means creating an environment where every member of the team can take the lead in improving and uplifting — from the top down, from the bottom up, and from every position in the organization. Tan Suee Chieh faced a big challenge when he became CEO at NTUC Income — to make a great company even greater. More than 30 years ago NTUC Income was created by Singapore’s government to provide low-cost insurance to low-income workers. But as the Singapore economy grew, workers became more affluent and had many other options for insurance and financial planning. While NTUC Income was one of the most trusted names in Singapore, the company was also viewed as traditional and conservative. Mr. Tan was charged with uplifting NTUC Income into Singapore’s new service-centered world. And he met that challenge with a bold and very public declaration. At a company gathering and in a full-page newspaper ad, he declared to everyone connected with NTUC Income — and that’s everyone in the nation — that change was coming. And then he followed through — with a new commitment to making service come alive, with new staff who revamped the company’s logo, branding, and advertising, with innovative products, engaged and enthusiastic employees, and uplifting service education for every team member. Mr. Tan led a service revolution, and built a winning service culture, by involving everyone from the bottom up and the top down.

Create a strong foundation through education.

Many organizations try to train their employees in customer service when they should be educating them. Training teaches someone what actions to take in a specific situation. Education teaches him or her how to think about service in any situation and then choose the best actions to take. Great service is not just about following a procedure or a sequence of steps. It’s about applying your attitude and heart with a proven set of service tools and principles. It’s about taking valuable actions at the right time to create an uplifting service experience so that customers and colleagues feel great about your organization. Service education must enable everyone on your team to make that vital distinction. Singapore is now taking the significant step of putting service education into the school system. The nation is teaching the tools and principles of uplifting service to young people, which will equip them to succeed in the world’s service economy. Mauritius is working on taking similar steps.

Get everyone to speak with one voice.

A Common Service Language enables clear communication and supports the delivery of superior internal and external service. When you are creating an uplifting service culture, a Common Service Language is the first building block. Why? Because language is the raw material from which we create new meaning and new experiences in life. By inventing or adopting a new language, you can actually change the world. When Singapore began its transformation, the Singapore Public Service, a wide-ranging system of government with 127,000 officers in 15 ministries and more than 50 statutory boards, faced a problem. Imagine a citizen, a tourist, or an employer with a question, trying to figure out which office to call. All too often, callers would make an attempt, only to hear a public servant say, ‘Sorry, you’ve called the wrong office.’ That’s not world-class service. So Singapore’s Public Service leaders created a new phrase — and a philosophy — by implementing a policy called 'No Wrong Door'. Today, if you call the wrong government office, a public servant will take personal responsibility to transfer you to the right officer in another government agency, and he or she won’t let you go until you have been successfully connected. ‘No Wrong Door’ highlights the power of a Common Service Language: It’s simple, memorable, and effective.

Hire up.

Each new hire either makes your culture stronger or makes your challenge to build a great service culture a little harder. The right people pull naturally in the right direction. Every new hire sends a message to everyone else. Either you are committed to your service culture and hire good people to prove it, or your commitment is shallow lip service only, and your next hire also proves it. Singapore Airlines had to compete globally from day one. Competing against the world’s major airlines, the one place they could differentiate was service. In order to do this, they put in place rigorous and discerning hiring methods. If you are hired by Singapore Airlines, it means you are truly committed to delivering excellent service. It is an honor and a responsibility that every employee takes seriously every day. Through careful screening, interviews, and group exercises, the airline carefully chooses new hires who will contribute to transforming customer service, keeping the airline well-known as a great way to fly.

Unite under one vision.

“Many Partners, Many Missions, One Changi.” That’s the Engaging Service Vision that unites everyone who works at Changi Airport. At Changi, a coffee shop worker can tell you the departure gate locations and the fastest ways to get there. Airline employees know where you can buy last-minute souvenirs. Airport police can tell you how to find the post office and what time it opens. At this remarkable gateway, everyone works together to create positive experiences every day. That’s what Engaging Service Visions do — they unify and energize everyone in an organization. They pose a possibility each person can understand and aim to achieve in his or her work, role, team, and organization. It doesn’t matter whether you call this building block your service vision, mission, core value, guiding principle, credo, motto, slogan, saying, or tagline. What matters is that your Engaging Service Vision is engaging. Constantly UP your game. A Service Improvement Process creates synergy by connecting people between levels and functions. Some issues require ownership on the frontline, involvement from the middle, and sponsorship from above. Others are quickly solved by teams working across silos. Cross-functional team members bring new perspectives and fresh energy to old problems. This is where customer complaints are wanted and welcome, where survey reports are carefully examined for new ideas and insights. A well-designed Service Improvement Process promotes communication across functions, divisions, and departments. It stimulates collaboration across levels, languages, and locations. With thoughtful planning and invitations, you can also tap the creative energy of your customers, vendors, distributors, and even your government or industry regulators. All of these elements come together so that you are working toward a constant state of improvement.

Be a service copycat.

Service Benchmarking reveals others’ best practices and points to new ways you can upgrade yours. Develop a focused team of service providers who constantly seek to understand: How do other leaders create uplifting service experiences for their customers and colleagues? What can we learn, then adapt, adopt, and apply to improve the service we deliver to our customers and to each other? Singapore is a great place to service benchmark. Literally the entire nation is devoted to service, so everywhere you turn, from private companies to government agencies to individual citizens, you experience service improvement programs based on what customers, visitors, residents, and citizens need. Specifically, Changi Airport is a great place to look, especially when you know how the airport benchmarked its own way to great service. Changi Airport wants passengers to enjoy personalized, stress-free, and positively surprising service. So the airport installed a lush butterfly garden, which is an incredible place to relax, and a twisting, four-story slide that offers unexpected thrills and excitement. But no other airport in the world provided these facilities as competitive benchmarks. It got its ideas from surprising places: hospitals and theme parks. Changi Airport schedules flights and gates, and welcomes passengers and visitors. Hospitals schedule surgeries and operating theaters, and welcome patients and visitors. Hospitals have long used gardens as quiet places to help people rest and relax in a stress-free environment. And in many of the world’s best gardens, you will enjoy the beauty of butterflies. Also, the airport welcomes families from all over the world with children who have energy to burn and want to have a good time. Well, theme parks offer engaging attractions for the exact same families — attractions like multi-story slides.

Model the behaviors you want to see.

Being a service role model is not just for senior managers and members of the leadership team. It is what happens every time people can see what you do, read what you write, or hear what you say in an internal or external service situation. Leaders, managers, and frontline staff must walk-the-talk with powerful personal actions every day. When NTUC Income embarked on its cultural revolution, Mr. Tan knew he was asking people to change their traditional — and comfortable — ways of thinking and being. The best thing he could do was model new behaviors for all to see and follow. He wanted his people to be more flexible, so he took up intensive yoga classes to demonstrate his commitment to be flexible and balanced. He wanted the team to think and act outside their comfort zones, so he shaved his head for a charity function. Mr. Tan wanted the team to use new media, go online, and not be afraid of the digital future. So he created a Twitter account, Facebook pages, and a LinkedIn profile to connect himself and his company to the world. Now he wants the company to be fit for the competitive future and is training to run a full marathon. Some in the company will join him on the run. And, through his behavior, everyone will be uplifted by his commitment. Singapore is a nation of service. When people realize that a product comes from Singapore or when an event is being held there, it’s an anxiety reliever because the country has made itself synonymous with uplifting service. Mauritius is working toward that goal now, and that is exactly the feeling you should strive to create in people when they think about your company, your department, or your organization. If these nations can transform into uplifting service cultures, you can do it too.   Ron Kaufman is the author of ”Uplifting Service: The Proven Path to Delighting Your Customers, Colleagues, and Everyone Else You Meet“. He is the world’s premiere thought leader, educator, and motivator for uplifting customer service and building service cultures in many of the world’s largest and most respected organizations, including Singapore Airlines, Nokia Siemens Networks, Citibank, Microsoft, and Xerox. He is the founder of UP! Your Service, a global service education and management consultancy firm with offices in the United States and Singapore.    

This is an article contributed to Young Upstarts and published or republished here with permission. All rights of this work belong to the authors named in the article above.

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