How a Customer Service Vision Helps Startups Scale

A few Customer Service Tip of the Week subscribers have recently emailed me with the same question.

"Our startup's customer service team has started to grow from one person to a department with multiple employees. How do we keep everyone customer-focused?"

My answer is always the same. 

The first step is to create a customer service vision. This is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that points everyone in the same direction. 

Here's why you need one, what it can do for your organization, and how to create one.

Why Your Startup Needs a Vision

A big challenge happens whenever a company founder starts hiring employees.

Founders know what they want. They have an idea of the culture they'd like their business to have. A driving passion to solve a particular problem keeps them up at night.

All of that is locked in the founder's head.

A customer service vision helps founders get those ideas out of their brains and share the core of the company they're creating. The vision should articulate exactly what you hope to do for your customers so everyone can clearly understand. 

The vision also becomes a compass that points you in the right direction whenever you need to make a critical decision. Which leads us to what it can specifically do for your organization.

 

What a Vision Can Do

A customer service vision can help startups both strategically and tactically.

On a strategic level, decision-making gets easier. Customer-focused companies reduce internal friction by aligning key processes with a central vision. For example:

  • Goals: what should you measure?
  • Hiring: how do you decide someone is a good fit?
  • Training: what training do employees need to be successful?
  • Empowerment: what authority, tools, and resources do employees need to serve customers?
  • Leadership: what messages should leaders consistently reinforce?

On a tactical level, the vision should guide employee decisions. It's impossible to anticipate every customer service scenario, especially in a startup. A customer service vision provides clarity when there isn't an established procedure.

 

How to Create a Customer Service Vision

You can use this step-by-step guide to walk you through the entire process. Here are the highlights:

First, make this a team effort. You want to involve your employees in writing the vision so it will be authentic and meaningful. Visions often fail to become widely adopted when leaders make up the vision on their own.

Second, a good customer service vision adheres to three criteria:

  1. It's simple and easily understood
  2. The vision is focused on customers
  3. It accurately reflects the company now and the company's future aspirations

Clio provides a great example. The company provides cloud-based legal practice management software. As a young startup, the company developed this vision:

Our goal is to help our customers succeed and realize the full value of our Product. This results in Evangelists and less Churn. 

The third step is to make sure all employees know and understand the vision. Each person should be able to answer three questions:

  1. What is the customer service vision?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. How do I personally contribute?

Now comes the hard part. 

Customer-focused startups don't allow a customer service vision to be a one-time project. Rather, the vision should guide the company's growth and operations for years to come.

You can learn more about how to chart your course from The Service Culture Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Your Employees Obsessed with Service. Single copies are available on amazon.com. You can get quantity discounts on bulk purchases from 800-CEO-READ.


Lessons From The Overlook: Review Your Vision

Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It's a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.

"We've implemented a customer service vision, now what?"

That's a question I frequently receive from customer service leaders. A customer service vision is a shared definition of outstanding customer service. It's one thing to have one (here's my guide to writing yours). It's another thing to make it stick.

My wife, Sally, and I created a customer service vision when we bought The Overlook a year ago.

Welcome to your mountain community retreat.

Each word was carefully chosen. Looking back a year later, we're solidly executing 75 percent. Yet there's still 25 percent that needs work.

That's why it's important to do a vision review.

View from Suicide Rock, a popular hiking destination near The Overlook. Photo credit: Jeff Toister

View from Suicide Rock, a popular hiking destination near The Overlook. Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Gut Check Your Customer Service Vision

The first step is to discuss the vision with a sample of key stakeholders. The goal here is to do a gut check and make sure it still resonates.

Our vision has four critical pieces:

  • Welcome: guests should feel at home during their stay.
  • Mountain: guests should enjoy what the mountain has to offer (ex: our view).
  • Community: guests should experience small-town hospitality where people know people.
  • Retreat: guests should have a relaxing visit at the cabin.

That was pretty easy to do with The Overlook, since it's really Sally and me. All four pieces definitely still resonate. We do have a conversation planned with the owner of our property management company since she and her employees are critical stakeholders, too.

It doesn't have to be a formal process. You can have these discussions in one-on-one conversations, team meetings, or even focus groups. 

Who to include can vary. Think of key people whose opinion is really crucial to the vision having widespread support. Here are a few you should consider:

  • Senior leadership
  • Middle management
  • Frontline employees, especially experienced team members
  • Vendors and contractors
  • Shareholders

OK, you probably notice that's just about everyone except for customers. That's an intentional omission, which we'll get to in a moment.

 

Review Employee Engagement

The next step is to make sure your employees are still engaged with the vision.

An engaged employee is someone who understands what makes the organization successful (i.e. the vision) and is committed to helping achieve that success.

Employee engagement means employees will be able to give consistent answers to three questions.

  1. What is the customer service vision?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. How do I personally contribute?

Our memories fade over time. Your employees may have been able easily answer these questions a year ago, but that's no guarantee the vision has stuck.

Doing this routine check-up will help you identify any opportunities to re-engage people.

Believe it or not, it was helpful for Sally and me to have this conversation. We exchanged our thoughts about question number three and renewed our commitment to achieving the vision.

Which led us to the next step in our review.

 

Evaluate Your Execution

Remember we initially left customers out of the discussion? Now it's time to include them. 

Here is where we gather customer feedback and other data to see how well it matches our vision. You can use your existing survey, customer interviews, and other data.

For example, we have a guest book at The Overlook. Our guests also receive a survey after their stay. It's fun to see what comments guests leave and see if there are any particular themes.

Our evaluation told us we're hitting 75 percent of our vision. Here are the high points:

  • Welcome: guests consistently feel at home during their stay.
  • Mountain: many comments and feedback focus on the mountains.
  • Retreat: our guests really enjoy relaxing at the cabin.

The one missing piece is community. Our goal here was to find ways to connect guests to the surrounding community of Idyllwild. We want people to feel a part of this small town.

So our focus for Year 2 of owning The Overlook will be forging stronger connections between our guests and the town. 

Any ideas?


Why You Need Danger to Be Great at Service

It was a Monday afternoon, and droves of hikers were ascending San Diego's Cowles Mountain. 

It's one of the most popular hikes in town. You're rewarded with sweeping views of San Diego, the mountains, the ocean, and even Tijuana after a moderately steep 1.5 mile trek.

There are some drawbacks. The trail is dusty and worn from constant use. The beauty at the top is a little marred by the crowds. Loud conversations and even louder music can pierce the serenity. (Seriously, who brings music on a hike?!)

One peak and another 1.25 miles from Cowles stands Pyles. That's where I sat in blissful silence, soaking in the same view.

Fear was the only reason I had the entire trail to myself.

It's this same fear that causes so many customer service leaders to follow the crowd. It feels safe to do what everyone else is doing. 

Their reward is getting stuck on average.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Fear Leads to Average

The American Customer Satisfaction Index currently stands at 77 on a 0-100 scale.

What does it take to be at 77? Probably a few things:

  • A decent product or service
  • Reasonably competent management
  • A customer service operation that follows standard practices

The challenge is there's nothing distinctive about average. A 77 won't set you apart from the competition. Your company won't be able to leverage the awesome power of word of mouth marketing. 

So why not do more? Why not truly be different?

The answer is fear. In my experience, executives typically make decisions about customer service based on two big fears. 

The first is money. Spending money is understandably scary. It's even scarier when the return is uncertain. While there are a number of ways to calculate the financial impact of customer service, it can be difficult. 

Which leads to the second fear, doing something stupid. Executives repeatedly turn to benchmarks for help making uncertain decisions. The rationale is it's harder to criticize something if everyone else is doing it.

The problem, of course, with following benchmarks is it inevitably leads to average.

 

How Elite Service Leaders Embrace Danger

The best customer service champions take calculated risks.

They aren't reckless. These leaders simply understand that rising above average means doing something different. The wisdom of the crowd will only take you so far.

I heard this consistent theme when I interviewed people for The Service Culture Handbook. Rather than following the crowds, elite service leaders established a clear picture of success and continuously took calculated steps to get there.

Here are just a few examples of things that customer-focused leaders do differently than the average leader:

  • They constantly focus on culture, over a long period of time.
  • They use data to confront tough realities, and find ways to improve.
  • They take time to hire and train people the right way.
  • They invest in making it easier for employees to serve.
  • They develop empathy by taking time to talk directly to customers.

I imagine none of these items seem particularly revolutionary. The tough part is making all of them part of your day as a leader. The average leader merely pays lip service to these actions. The elite leader obsesses over them.

Which brings me back to my hike.

To get to Pyles, you must first hike Cowles. This means your hike will take longer. Some people are content with only going as far as the rest of the crowd, just like in service.

The trail to Pyles is well-marked. There's a sign at the top of Cowles. It's on the large trail map posted at the foot of the Cowles trail. People can see the trail but don't venture farther because they don't see other people doing it, just like in service.

 

Action Item

Set a course. Do something you know is right and stick to it. Here are some ideas if you aren't sure where to start.

It can be scary to go it alone. It's also exhilarating.


How to Attract More Customers with Google My Business

Many small business owners hope Google will bring in more customers.

Some try to advertise using Google Ads. Others wade into the mysterious world of search engine optimization (SEO). The latter often involves hiring an internet marketing wizard who makes strange suggestions for your website.

There's another way Google can help you bring in more customers. It's easy and it's free. Let me show you how this works.

I'll be arriving in Watertown, South Dakota tonight to speak at a Watertown Convention and Visitors Bureau luncheon tomorrow.

Naturally, I need to find a place for dinner, so I Google "restaurant watertown sd." Here are the search results:

watertown.jpg

Get Listed

Wouldn't you like your business to be one of those top choices when a customer searches for something relevant?

Notice Google prioritizes three options. It shows each one on a map. At the bottom is a link labeled "More places" where I can search for additional restaurants. 

All of the additional search results, including TripAdvisor and Yelp's "Best 10" lists appear in the search results below this box. 

morelinks.jpg

That's pretty good visibility to a prospective customer. I'll see even more choices if I click on "More places" or click directly on the map. This also reveals a larger map that shows where each business is located.

restaurants.jpg

The good news is these restaurants did not pay for advertising to get listed there! These search results come from Google My Business.

Companies can claim a free listing by providing some basic information such as your business name, address, phone number, business category (restaurant, etc.), and website. It's also a good idea to include your hours of operation.

One word of caution—make sure you keep this information up-to-date. You want your customers to know if you change your hours of operation, update your restaurant menu, or move to a new location.

 

Add Details

Customers can see more information when you click on an individual business listing. Here's what I see when I click on the listing for Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant.

guadalajara.jpg

Notice the photos at the bottom. You can upload photos of your business to your Google My Business listing and Google will display them alongside photos contributed by customers.

This is an excellent way to visually entice people to pay a visit!

 

Improve Your Ranking

Google uses an algorithm to decide which order to display businesses when customers search for particular terms. There are three primary factors that contribute:

  • Relevance
  • Distance
  • Prominence

Relevance refers to how closely your business matches what a person is searching for. The best way to improve your results is to make sure your Google My Business listing is complete and accurate.

Distance is Google's attempt to provide the closest options to the person who is searching. Not much you can do about that one aside from opening a ton of locations all over the place. That may not be feasible, so...

Prominence is Google's estimate of the business's popularity. There are several factors that contribute to this. A big one is the number and quality of Google reviews.

Reviews, my friend, can be used to your advantage because they are often overlooked by big businesses!

 

Maximizing Review Power

There are two ways to think of reviews. One is how Google uses them and the other is how customers view them. Let's start with Google's own description:

Google review count and score are factored into local search ranking: more reviews and positive ratings will probably improve a business's local ranking.

OK, so it's great to have lots of five-star reviews. No surprise there. 

Some businesses go to great lengths to get good reviews. They provide incentives. Employees are implicitly encouraged to engage in survey begging.

Do yourself a favor and skip those gimmicks. Pressuring customers for good reviews can hurt service quality. There's another way to improve your reputation that customers will appreciate.

Let's look at the first few reviews for Guadalajara Mexican Restaurant in Watertown:

reviews.jpg

This restaurant has a terrific overall rating of 4.4 stars (out of five).

Now, some business owners might freak out because there are a few bad reviews. The first review shown is only three stars and is somewhat critical.

This is actually a plus!

That's because a few negative reviews can make a business more trustworthy. Customers are wary of any business that has all positive reviews since it raises suspicions that the reviews may be fake.

There's another plus here as well. Notice the response from Carlos Vega, the manager. Vega responded quickly, apologized without getting defensive, and invited the customer to return. 

This tells customers that management is listening to feedback. Presumably, the restaurant is using this feedback to continuously improve.

These Google My Business listings are for individual locations. Most large businesses I see fail to respond to customer reviews. That's because social media is typically handled at the corporate level. 

Here's where the personal touch of a small business can really shine.

 

Resources

Here are a few resources to get you started.

  1. Get your Google My Business listing and make sure it's up-to-date.
  2. Learn how Google determines business rankings.

Of course, there are other places a customer like me might search for a business. The big ones are Yelp and TripAdvisor and your business should have a presence there, too. Each offers a free business listing.

My online training course, How to Serve Customers Using Social Media, can help you make sense of them all. You'll need a Lynda.com account to access it, so here's a 30-day trial if you're not already a subscriber.


The Amazon Playbook for Speed and Agility

It's no secret Amazon is a customer-obsessed organization.

What's fascinating to me is how they achieve this obsession. Former Amazon executive, John Rossman, shared some of the company's secrets in a keynote address at ICMI's Contact Center Demo and Conference last week.

His presentation shared insights from his book, The Amazon Way, which highlights 14 leadership principles Amazon follows to drive its legendary customer service. Rossman called this Amazon's playbook for speed and agility.

Here are a few take-aways that really stood out for me.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Customer Obsession is #1

Rossman made an interesting distinction between a company that is merely customer-focused and an organization that is customer obsessed.

He compared employees in customer-obsessed organizations to college football fans for their insane levels of devotion and enthusiasm. This obsession goes beyond a superficial acknowledgement that service is important. According to Rossman, you must "be willing to do really hard things over a long period of time. 

This really resonated with me. A long-term commitment to continuously improving the service culture was a common trait of leaders I interviewed for The Service Culture Handbook.

One example Rossman gave was the empty chair. He described how Amazon leaders often leave a chair empty during meeting, so the chair can be figuratively occupied by the customer. 

It's a reminder to never lose focus on what is most important.

 

Reduce Friction

Rossman described how Amazon is constantly looking for ways to make things easier for customers.

One opportunity is internet connected devices. These are rapidly changing how consumers purchase common household items such as groceries.

For example, the company introduced the Dash Wand in 2014. It was a small device that customers could use to order groceries from Amazon by scanning the barcodes of products or saying the name of the product into the device.

A year later, Amazon introduced the Dash Button, which allows customers to re-order specific items like laundry detergent with a single push of a button.

Buying groceries online has been around in some form for about 20 years. Amazon is just making it easier.

 

Invent and Simplify

This is closely linked to reducing friction. Rossman described how Amazon often takes aim at the worst part of of a customer experience and tries to simplify it. He said, "Making things simple is as important and hard as inventing."

A great example of this is Amazon Go

Most consumers would agree that the checkout line is worst part of grocery shopping in a traditional supermarket. Grocers have studied different ways to make lines go faster, such as self-checkout stations, 15 items or less express lanes, and cross-training employees to serve as back-up cashiers as needed.

Amazon took another approach and simplified the process. The company has invented technology that allows customers to skip the line altogether.

This same philosophy guides the company's internal operations. 

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to tour an Amazon fulfillment center where I was able to see first-hand how Amazon gets orders out the door so quickly and accurately. There were several things the company does differently than the typical fulfillment center that in hindsight make perfect sense.

 

Amazon's Service Philosophy

Rossman explained that "most customer interactions are the result of either a defect or an error."

So the culmination of Amazon's customer obsession, quest to reduce friction, and invent and simplify philosophy centered around avoiding contacts in the first place.

If you think about it, that's really how Amazon has cemented its reputation for outstanding customer service. You don't hear tales of Amazon employees going above and beyond like you might with some other companies.

What you experience is the ability to quickly order a product with minimal effort and have it delivered within days or even hours.