Where Legendary Customer Service Begins


It may seem amazing that the solution to achieving legendary customer care does not lie in some “slogan driven” training program, but rather in a simple two-step process.

Ask any CEO if he or she is committed to excellent customer service and the answer typically is, “Of course we are!” But ask why their organization’s service isn’t among the ranks of the Walt Disney Company, the Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, or any other extraordinary service provider and the excuses are tiresome: “We can’t pay enough,” or “People don’t care,” or “Our turnover is high.”

Now assume for a minute that these excuses are valid (which I am convinced they are not), and ask a leader, “What are you doing to alleviate this problem?” and witness their awkward scramble for an answer. If an organization is truly committed to legendary customer service and their lame excuses were valid, why wouldn’t they be using all available resources to solve these problems?

So what is the secret? It may seem amazing that the solution to achieving legendary customer service does not lie in some “slogan driven” training program, but rather in a simple two-step process: (1) Hire to the culture of the organization; (2) Provide a multi-day orientation program that encourages new hires to embrace a new set of values.

Think about it – Disney, the Four Seasons, Nordstrom, and other celebrated service providers hire from the same employment pool and pay about the same wages. What these companies do better than others is hire and orientate.

Hire to the culture. World-class service providers require multiple interviews with potential employees in addition to the one or two human resource interviews. The purpose of these multiple interviews is to assure that the candidate fits the culture of the organization. At the Four Seasons, in addition to a diverse mix of employees, each hotel or resort manager must also interview all potential hires before an offer is made. Kathleen Taylor, President of the Four Seasons’ worldwide operations explains:

“It is not for the GM (General Manager) alone to say, ‘Yes, I like the person’ or ‘No, I don’t.’ It shows the potential dishwasher that his [or her] job is really important. He may go home that night and tell his mother or friends, ‘Wow, I met the GM today,’ and on his first day at work, he knows the GM, and the GM knows him.”

Equally important to ensuring that a candidate fits the culture is consistently demonstrating that everyone’s role, no matter where in the hierarchy, is important to creating magical moments of service.

Hiring to the culture of your organization assumes you can define your organization’s dream (or vision), values and behaviors (Codes of Conduct, as defined in our best-selling book, The Disney Way). If your culture needs defining, it would be wise to work on those critical elements before embarking upon the hiring process.

Over the years I have heard many executives argue, “Why be so concerned with hiring the right person? Anyone can learn these entry-level jobs, and if a new hire doesn’t work out, there are three people waiting in line.” The solution to their short-sighted mentality eludes them. They probably would agree that the most valuable asset of any organization is the customer. So wouldn’t they want to trust their most valuable asset to the most competent, capable and skilled person available, not just the “next in line?” It leaves me dumbfounded.

JoAnn Wagner, President and CEO of the SOS Staffing Family of Companies, explains how ‘Hiring for Fit’ is vital to effective customer service and overall success. “Superior customer service begins with uniting the right talent with the right opportunity, which starts long before a candidate’s first day on the job. Interviewing, testing and screening of a candidate’s experience and background compared with a company’s culture are all factors that must be carefully weighed. Once a culture match has been made, a comprehensive orientation program is the final crucial piece.”

So, if caring for your customer is not reason enough for finding the right employee, isn’t increasing your competitive advantage? Both the Hay Group and Workforce Management magazine have calculated the cost of replacing an $8.50/hour employee at $10,000 to $12,000. Disney, the Four Seasons, and fellow world-class service providers experience 3-5 times lower turnover than their competition.

I also hear the argument, “Our HR department is too small or does not have time to find the ‘right’ people.” One solution to this problem is to form a strategic alliance with a staffing services firm. Susan Aherns, Regional Manager for Adams & Associates in Washington explains: “Companies who form a true partnership with a staffing firm will add arrows to their quiver that they would not have otherwise. The right firm can function as an integral part of a company’s HR department, saving it valuable time and money. In the end, businesses often save more by utilizing a staffing firm to find the best candidates.”

The Commonwealth Alliance Program (CAP) reports that businesses now attribute 25% of all revenues to strategic alliances. Karen Lustman, District Manager for Orange County direct hire firm Devon & Devon, elaborates: “Hiring in today’s competitive climate is much more than finding a body. Strong strategic alliances result in win-win solutions. When a hiring firm understands the company’s mission and culture, they send only best-fit candidates.”

If you have hired an individual who has passed the “culture fit” test with flying colors, it’s now your responsibility to immerse him or her into your culture. This must happen before they begin their operational or staff responsibilities.

Orientation. Orientation programs in most organizations would have to increase by a factor of ten to reach the level of pathetic. Most involve new hires in tedious activities ranging from completing forms to reviewing policies. Then, the “welcomed” newcomer gets thrown into the hustle of getting the job done. Even in companies with well-defined cultures, the success rate of these new hires is less than stellar.

If new hires end up being fired or resigning within the first six months on the job, they are almost always branded as failures. I’ll bet you’ve heard the feedback: “he never really bought into our level of service,” or “she never really understood our values.” An all too often believed myth is that values can be explained or even dictated.

Nothing could be further from the truth. One cannot mandate a new set of values to anyone; the only way for values to be effective is for individuals to embrace and internalize the values. Luckily, we can turn to a tremendously successful role model for this lesson in action. . . Isadore Sharp, CEO and founder of Four Seasons. “Issy” told me, “They (values) are only words on paper, the words have significance only if behaved; the behaviors are significant only if believed.” Legendary customer service does not come from a policy manual; it comes from the heart.

So, how do you get new hires to embrace a new set of values? Answer: Build a multi-day orientation process. Anything less than two days is not enough. People need time to understand how the new values contribute to the success of the organization and why their current set of values will not work. For decades I have been involved in leading organizations to structure cultural orientation programs so that individuals and teams can internalize the vision, the values and the culture of an organization.

I challenge you to spend your time establishing the right hiring process and the right orientation process, not in just getting the “right” people.

About the Author

One of the foremost experts on Walt Disney’s success formula and co-author of The Disney Way: Harnessing the Secrets of Disney in Your Company, Bill Capodagli brings over 30 years of experience in consulting, research, and teaching experience. Bill has benchmarked the Walt Disney Company and assisted scores of organizations in revamping their customer service standards and increasing market share and productivity using Walt’s original credo for success.

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