What's the one characteristic that sets a company apart from all the others? It's the one thing that can't be copied, or beaten with regard to cost by the competition. It's one of the few qualities that can strengthen over time. It is the only attribute that gives a company it's differentiated yet sustainable competitive advantage. The answer: the service delivered by its people.

Many companies have yet to learn this well kept secret. They continue to think that a competitive advantage is measured by development of new products, first in market, low- cost strategy or quick response. While all these objectives are important, the primary goal and the key to all of this should be to sustain a profitable organization. To do so requires a company to deliver exceptional value to its customers, both from a product and service perspective. As a result, most companies now pursue strategies and missions that are driven by customer-focused objectives.

A "Big Picture" Approach

Some companies invest in training as the sole means for achieving their customer service objectives, while others emphasize it in their management incentive plans, and still others may update their technology for improved customer data. When viewed separately, each activity seems very important. However, it is highly unlikely that the type of customer service that captures a competitive advantage would be achieved with single activities. Rather, an integrated "big picture" people-oriented approach is the only way for an organization to cultivate a culture that promotes, supports and delivers exceptional service. This seems to be the area where many companies miss the mark. They invest their energies, attention and finances on a few activities with the belief that these changes will successfully accomplish their service goals. In reality, while some of the activities may add value, other processes may actually be detracting from it.

A classic example: Company X is attempting to differentiate on its level of customer service. Its mission statement includes its commitment to employees and customers. Despite extensive training provided to its staff, customer survey scores remain low. The company hired CMI to help them accomplish their customer service goals. Analysis of the company's systems revealed many processes that lacked a common purpose. The information system was focused on costs (not customer information), its hiring process was unstructured - resulting in high turnover, its wages were low compared to market, and its management bonus plan rewarded on the financial performance of the manager's unit only.

In order for a customer service strategy to be truly successful, a "big picture" people approach must be taken. When viewed from this perspective, the company must consider customer service from a much more complex and global approach. The company should be prepared to seek and use customer opinion data, review all organizational systems, make improvements where indicated and conduct ongoing measurement to ensure delivery of the best possible value to the customer.

Provide a Strong Foundation -

A critical lever for ensuring a successful customer service strategy includes visible enthusiastic commitment and involvement from top management. Without it, customer service is doomed to mediocrity. Along with top management support, the next step toward developing a culture that embraces customer service includes developing organizational values and/or customer service principles, and then using them as the foundation for all other systems and decision- making efforts.

Many highly acclaimed companies (i.e. Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom, Rosenbluth Travel) attribute their success to the emphasis placed on their people and the way in which they are treated. Exceptional customer service can only be delivered by people who are satisfied with their work environment. To establish a baseline for how your organization is servicing others, it is essential to obtain customer feedback (internal and external). This can be achieved via surveys, focus groups, interviews, or actual observation and/or experience of your service. The information revealed in the surveys then becomes the guide for identifying strengths and opportunities. Surveys should occur at regular intervals to determine the level of improvement resulting from implemented action.

Integrating HR Into the "Big Picture" -

Striving to simplify complex business processes (i.e., operations, budgeting, marketing, billing) is only one step toward achieving a customer-focused strategy. However, integrating human resource (HR)systems into the "big picture" is critical for creating a culture that retains the kind of people who deliver great service. Studies show there is a critical connection between losing employees, losing customers and losing revenues.

One of the most essential and often neglected programs is the company's selection process. The most successful customer-focused companies often invest wisely up-front to ensure the greatest long-term payoff, as noted by their formal selection programs. Recognizing that not all individuals are suited to positions that require customer service, many companies try and capture this information before the individual becomes part of their payroll. Effective hiring means developing a selection program that uses a variety of methods that assess and target the most qualified individuals who are also service- oriented. This is generally accomplished through job-validated testing, customer service assessment, multiple and peer structured interviews, and reference checking. Smart hiring also means taking the time necessary to select (and then keep) people who are willing and able to service others better than your competition.

Compensation and benefit programs must also be competitive and offer the flexibility necessary to attract the best. It is senseless to recruit the most qualified candidates only to be turned down due to a middle of the road compensation offer. HR must have the foresight and influence to offer work/life benefits (i.e. flexible hours, work at home options, on-site daycare) that are valued by the changing employee population, with the promise of a culture that will truly support such benefits.

Reward systems are essential for promoting, measuring and supporting a culture that retains quality people. Ongoing recognition of employees who deliver excellent customer service (to internal or external customers) provides a method for reinforcing and strengthening desired employee behaviors. Management incentive programs that are based on employee and customer service satisfaction levels, convey the significance and entice buy-in from management. Employee gain-sharing and profit-sharing programs have proven to be highly successful in establishing employee commitment, innovation, and motivation. In addition, customer service expectations must also be incorporated into the employee performance evaluation process to ensure that all reward systems are linked and rooted in the same purpose.

Last but not least, are the training and development efforts. Often left to do the whole job, training is really only one piece of the pie. Training is imperative for instructing new employees on company customer service principles and expectations. Ongoing training is essential for keeping customer service at the forefront of all employee interactions. Cross-training, rotation and developmental assignments are methods that promote retention, prevent stagnation and improve overall service. Finally, when good things happen, make a point of celebrating and thanking the people who made it happen!

Embracing a "big picture" people approach will help you uncover what's missing in your service and enable you to strengthen your company's position toward becoming a highly successful customer-focused company.

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