Exposed in a retail looking glass

Businesses striving to improve their quality of service should take a good, hard look in the mirror – and they should be prepared to make a choice if they don't like what they see.

My recent deliberations over Myer and David Jones left me reflecting on how any large business, and retailers in particular, can create a genuine service culture. This factor seems to be the key to long-term success, rather than all the many specific things that a business might do with respect to product, channel and communication strategies (although they are all important).

Yet few businesses seem to be able to create a true service culture despite desperately wanting to do so. Almost without exception, we claim that our customers come first. We say we ‘care’. We develop mission and values statements that emphasise service. We engage in cultural change programs, we train our staff, and we put procedures and checklists in place to ensure a good customer experience. So the result should be a service culture, right? ‘Should be’ is the operative phrase; mostly we fall well short and we wonder what elusive critical factor is missing from the mix.

Last week I had an experience that led to an insight into this problem. I had gone to one of the specialist auto stores to exchange a car cover given to me by my son. I did not take it out of the box as it was identical to one I had previously purchased; the one with the breather vents that didn’t work. I did not want my classic Mk II Jaguar sweating under an impervious plastic cloak.

The two men behind the counter, in matching company polos, eyed me with suspicion as I approached. Only when I produced the docket did the attitude change slightly – the threat had been downgraded from ‘probably a con man’ to ‘bloody nuisance’. They were not in the slightest bit interested in my description of the soaking wet Jaguar and were indifferent and defensive. ‘This cover is our best seller’ (code for ‘you must be wrong’). Without any assistance, I exchanged the best seller for one made from Tyvek – the same breathable material that they wrap houses in – and beat a hasty retreat. I had not enjoyed the experience and would not go back to that shop.

What was wrong here? Fundamentally it was a problem of attitude, and this thought was the start of an insight. These auto shop assistants had a choice; they could have chosen to view the interaction with me positively, to be light-hearted and friendly, to be interested in why I returned their best seller. Instead they chose to be surly, off-hand; to give the impression that I had made an unwelcome intrusion into their comfortable self-preoccupation.

Poor attitudes have become very widespread in our community to the point where they could be viewed as a common habit. The baby boomers, born in the decade after the war, were both indulged and indulgent towards their children. The generations that followed – Gen X and Gen Y – were, in general, soft, spoilt and selfish. Selfishness literally implies a preoccupation with ‘me’, as opposed to you or anyone else. The image of Narcissus is sometimes used to illustrate this condition – where the individual is in love with his or her own image. The explosive growth of Facebook and Twitter reflect our narcissism and feed our self-preoccupation. 'Look at me'. 'Look at me'.

The problem for employers is that Facebook people have no interest in serving others, and generally don’t understand the idea of service. To them it means ‘serve yourself’. In this context, it is hardly surprising that all of our efforts to create a culture of service come to very little – Narcissus is both unable and unwilling to hear us.

We can respond to this quite fundamental problem in one of two ways. We can say that it is not our job to change individuals or re-make society, and that we must accept people as they are and work with whatever qualities they present to us. This response leads to more of the same – more training, more systems and processes, more exhortations. We are not, however, addressing the root cause of the service problem. What we end up with is employees going through the motions, acting out a script given to them by ‘the system’. A true service culture will not flow from this.

The alternative is to fairly and squarely confront the problem of Narcissus in our workplace. I have said that Narcissus is a habit, and habits consist of both idea and behaviour. Moving to a new habit starts with broadcasting and embedding a new idea and then helping the new behaviour to emerge through structure and process.

The Pikes Place fish market in Seattle has successfully achieved this. Listen to them talking about how the new idea of service was conceived and ‘habitualised’:

"The first step for us at Pike Place Fish was to decide who we wanted to be. One of the young kids working for me said, "Hey! Let's be World Famous!" At first I thought, "World Famous...what a stupid thing to say!" But the more we talked about it, the more we all got excited about being World Famous. So we committed to it.

Then, after a while, we asked ourselves, "What does this mean - being world famous?" And we created our own definition. For us it means going beyond just providing outstanding service to people. It means really being present with people and relating to them as human beings. You know, stepping outside the usual "we're in business and you're a customer" way of relating to people and intentionally being with them right now, in the present moment, person to person. We take all our attention off ourselves to be only with them...looking for ways to serve them. We're out to discover how we can make their day.

We've made a commitment to have our customers leave with the experience of having been served. They experience being known and appreciated whether they buy fish or not. And it's not good enough just to want that - it takes an unrelenting commitment. We've made it our job to make sure that experience happens for every customer.” (Read the full text here).

Commitment to effort, service for its own sake, being present, wanting what we are doing – these are slightly different descriptions of one state of mind and one journey; the journey to a culture of service. This starts with a choice; we must choose our attitude. In a business context we must make this choice both as individuals and as teams or groups, and to ensure that the attitude takes root, we must help it with structure and process, in the same way that we help a young tree to grow by providing it with a sturdy stake, and with regular applications of water and fertiliser.

The Pikes Place example tells us that we can successfully confront the problem of Narcissus through an explicit focus on attitudes. This focus is the doorway to the creation of a true service culture.

Christopher Tipler is a Melbourne-based management advisor and author of Corpus RIOS – The how and what of business strategy. His web site contains more material on this and related topics.

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