The culture of service

I recently finished reading Punching In, a book by Alex Frankel. It’s about his experience working as a front-line employee in a variety of companies, from UPS to Apple. The book is focused upon corporate culture, the indoctrination of customer-facing employees, and how such employees influence the customer experience. And that got me thinking.

Culture may be the distinguishing characteristic between managed hosting companies. Managed hosting is a service industry. You make an impression upon the customer with every single touch, from the response to the initial request for information, to the day the customer says good-bye and moves on. (The same is true for more service-intensive cloud computing and CDN providers, too.)

I had the privilege, more than a decade ago, of spending several years working at DIGEX (back when all-uppercase names were trendy, before the chain of acquisitions that led to the modern Digex, absorbed into Verizon Business). We were a classic ISP of the mid-90s — we offered dial-up, business frame relay and leased lines, and managed hosting. Back then, DIGEX had a very simple statement of differentiation: “We pick up the phone.” Our CEO used to road-show dialing our customer service number, promising a human being would pick up in two rings or less. (To my knowledge, that demo never went wrong.) We wanted to be the premium service company in the space, and a culture of service really did permeate the company — the idea that, as individuals and as an organization, we were going to do whatever it took to make the customer happy.

For those of you who have never worked in a culture like that: It’s awesome. Most of us, I think, take pleasure in making our customers happy; it gives meaning to our work, and creates the feeling that we are not merely chasing the almighty dime. Cultures genuinely built around service idolize doing right by the customer, and they focus on customer satisfaction as the key metric. (That, by the way, means that you’ve got to be careful in picking your customers, so that you only take business that you know that you can service well and still make a profit on.)

You cannot fake great customer service. You have to really believe in it, from the highest levels of executive management down to the grunt who answers the phones. You’ve got to build your company around a set of principles that govern what great service means to you. You have to evaluate and compensate employees accordingly, and you’ve got to offer everyone the latitude to do what’s right for your customers — people have to know that the management chain will back them up and reward them for it.

Importantly, great customer service is not equivalent to heroics. Some companies have cultures, especially in places like IT operations, where certain individuals ride in like knights to save the day. But heroics almost always implies that something has gone wrong — that service hasn’t been what it needed to be. Great service companies, on the other hand, ensure that the little things are right — that routine interactions are pleasant and seamless, that processes and systems help employees to deliver better service, and that everyone is incentivized to cooperate across functions and feel ownership of the customer outcome.

When I talk to hosting companies, I find that many of them claim to value customer service, but their culture and the way they operate clash directly with their ability to deliver great service. They haven’t built service-centric cultures, they haven’t hired people who value service (admittedly tricky: hire smart competent geeks who also like and are good at talking to people), and they aren’t organized and incentivized to deliver great service.

Similarly, CDN vendors have a kind of tragedy of growth. Lots of people love new CDNs because at the outset, there’s an extremely high-touch support model — if you’ve got a problem, you’re probably going to get an engineer on the phone with you right away, a guy who may have written the CDN software or architected the network, who knows everything inside and out and can fix things promptly. As the company grows, the support model has to scale — so the engineers return to the back room and entry-level lightly-technical support folks take their place. It’s a necessity, but that doesn’t mean that customers don’t miss having that kind of front-line expertise.

So ask yourself: What are the features of your corporate culture that create the delivery of great customer service, beyond a generic statement like “customers matter to us”? What do you do to inspire your front-line employees to be insanely awesome?

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Posted on January 6, 2009, in Industry and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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