The Best Time to Provide Service Culture Training

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Any service culture initiative will eventually involve training. The big question is, "When?"

I've gotten a lot of calls from customer service leaders lately who have wanted advice on service culture training. My answer almost invariably surprises them:

“You aren't ready just yet. There are a few steps you should take first."

Read on to see the advice I share with these leaders and discover the pre-work that should be done before any service culture training program. You'll know it's time to train when you've completed these assignments.

Team attending a service culture training session.

Define Your Culture First

Imagine you decided to invest in new accounting software for your company. There are a lot of different products on the market, so you decide to conduct a search for the best option.

Is that the time to train employees on the new accounting software?

Of course not! You must first decide which software you're going to acquire and then install the software so employees can actually use it before training them.

Service culture is the same way. 

There's no sense sending employees to training until you've defined your culture with a shared definition of outstanding service called a customer service vision

The vision should be the basis for your service culture training. Without one, your training will be generic and won't be customized to your organization's unique culture.

I outlined the process I use to create a customer service vision in The Service Culture Handbook. You can also read this step-by-step guide.

Create Learning Objectives

Let's go back to the accounting software analogy.

Imagine you've selected a software vendor and installed the new software so it's ready for employees to use. Now is surely the time to train employees, right?

Not so fast!

You must first know exactly what you want employees to do with the software. This might involve mapping out the various tasks employees will perform in the software and then designing a curriculum to teach employees those specific skills.

Service culture training is the same way. You must start by identifying what you want your employees to know and do after completing the training.

I always advise clients to focus their service culture training program on helping employees answer three questions:

  1. What is the customer service vision?

  2. What does it mean?

  3. How do I personally contribute?

Using these questions has a guide will make your training much more specific and focused. 

Plan for Sustainability

Okay, let's go back to the accounting software analogy one more time.

Imagine you implement the software and create a training program for your employees. Surely, now it's time to train, right?!

Not necessarily.

You want to time the training so employees learn to use the software right before they start using it. If you do the training too far in advance, employees will inevitably forget what they learned and they'll need to be trained again.

Service culture training works the same way. Before you train employees, you want to be sure that their work environment will help sustain and reinforce the training.

This means aligning two things with the training program:

  1. The employees' daily work.

  2. Messaging from the employees' boss.

Examples of daily work include policies and procedures, resources, and tools. If the service culture training encourages employees to go "above and beyond" for customers, but employees are bound by strict by policies that don't actually allow them to go above and beyond, the training will fall flat.

Likewise, managers must be aligned with the training as well. A boss who constantly harps on employees to be efficient and control costs will probably override a service culture training program that encourages employees to find ways to "surprise and delight" the people they serve.

Take Action

When I talk to leaders who are using The Service Culture Handbook, the biggest obstacle I observe is impatience.

Many people are tempted to skip crucial steps in the process and jump to training on the hope that training alone will change a service culture. 

It won't.

Time and time again, the most customer-focused leaders I see have the patience to commit their organization to the process. It may feel like slow-going at first, but you'll soon pick up steam and will suddenly be surprised at your momentum!

Study: Lack of Customer Focus Linked to Burnout Risk

A whopping 74 percent of contact center agents are at risk of burnout. 

The biggest cause? A company's lack of customer focus. Take a look at the difference between agents who are at risk of burnout versus those who are not.


These results confirm that customer service is a far more satisfying job when your company has a strong customer service culture. Contact center agents believe they can make a difference when a company is customer-focused. Unfortunately, many agents quickly become demotivated when they perceive their company is making it difficult for them to do their jobs.

These results come from a contact center agent burnout study I conducted earlier this year. The study was organized into two parts:

  • Part 1: Burnout self-assessment test
  • Part 2: 15 item questionnaire

The burnout self-assessment is provided by MindTools. It asks participants a number of questions and then provides an overall burnout risk score. You can try the assessment out yourself to check your risk level.

The questionnaire consisted of 15 items that research shows might be related to burnout risk. These relationships were tested by comparing the at risk agents to the agents who were not at risk of burnout.

Here's a summary of the results:

  • 8 items were related to burnout risk (including customer-focused culture)
  • 2 items were inconclusive
  • 5 items were not related to burnout risk

The full report is also available for download.

Why Culture Initiatives Fail

“We’re working on culture this year.”

I wish I had a dime for every time I heard an executive make that announcement. I’d have a lot of dimes.

It seems like everyone wants a great culture. One that’s customer-focused. And why not? A strong culture promises many benefits:

  • Employees will happily do the right thing
  • You’ll attract top talent
  • Customers will sing your praises

CEOs like to boldly announce that culture is a priority. Even Comcast is getting in on the culture game by announcing a major new initiative.

Most of these initiatives will fail. Here are three reasons why.


It’s hard to be good at something if you can’t define it.

The vast majority of organizations I talk to do not have a clearly defined culture. I’m not referring to the standard set of cultural artifacts like mission, vision, values. Let’s face it - most of those are hollow and empty.

I'm talking about something real. A clear compass that points people in the right direction.

The litmus test is to ask any random employee to describe the culture. Chances are, you’ll get a puzzled look or an answer that’s inconsistent from one person to the next.

The few companies who succeed with culture ensure every employee can answer three questions:

  1. What is our culture?
  2. How are we doing?
  3. How do I contribute?



Culture initiatives fail when companies try to copy someone else’s culture. 

That doesn’t stop companies from trying. A CIO once told me he wanted his team to be like the Apple Store. When I pressed him for details, the best he could do was say, “I want them to be good at service. You know, like the Apple Store.”

There’s a long list of books extolling the greatness of other company’s cultures. The Nordstrom Way, The Disney Way, The Virgin Way, The Cleveland Clinic Way, and the Southwest Airlines Way are on all sale right now. 

The absolute peak is when you can turn your culture into its own brand. The Ritz-Carlton and Disney offer classes on how to be more like them. Zappos now charges 10 bucks a head to tour their Las Vegas headquarters. 

Trying to copy another company’s culture fails because it’s their culture, not yours. Each company is unique. And, copying another culture ignores all the hard work the other company needed to get where they are today.

Great cultures can provide ideas and inspiration. But, they’re not paint-by-numbers guides.



Culture initiatives don’t work when they’re a side project.

Here are a few excuses I’ve heard for delaying a culture initiative:

  • “We’re knee-deep in system stuff right now.”
  • “We’d like to do it, but we don’t have the funding.”
  • “We’re focused on employee engagement right now.”

These excuses are convenient, but they really reflect a deeper misunderstanding about culture. Developing a strong culture is core. It’s fundamental and strategic.

A great culture would help make all of those decisions easier!

You have to live your culture if you want it to succeed. In-N-Out and McDonald’s started with the same three words to define their culture, but only In-N-Out actually lived them.

Treat it as a side project at your own peril.


Building a Strong Culture

You might want to start by reading about a successful cultural initiative.

Here are two resources to help you build your own customer-focused culture:

These resources can help, but there are no short-cuts. Culture initiatives can only succeed through a deep commitment.

Corporate culture's hidden influence on customer service

Culture has unseen influence on our behavior.

Culture has unseen influence on our behavior.

This post originally appeared on the Salesforce Blog. You can also read my latest Salesforce blog post, "How to Satisfy and Delight Your Customers."

Camille was a guest service associate working in a hotel. She had natural service instincts and had received hospitality training. Despite her qualifications, Camille routinely provided poor service.

She did it deliberately.

Camille didn’t enjoy providing poor service. She felt terrible every time she did something she knew would disappoint or frustrate one of the hotel’s guests. But she did it anyway.

Why would an intelligent and capable person work against their own instincts and values? The answer is corporate culture. 


Go Along to Get Along

Camille’s hotel had a toxic culture. Associates were disengaged. Management was ineffective. Guests were viewed with disdain. Going against this culture would cause Camille to be ostracized by her co-workers. 

Camille made the conscious decision to go along with the hotel’s cultural norms so she could get along with her co-workers. Research and practical experience suggests that most of us would do exactly what Camille did.

Here’s an example from a simple exercise I’ve facilitated many times. I ask my audience to answer a few review questions that cover my presentation so far. They’re also told that a few additional tasks will be displayed on the screen while they’re answering the review questions. I emphasize that answering the review questions is the first priority but ask the audience to complete the additional tasks as well.

The first additional task appears on the screen fifteen seconds after the review activity begins:

“Switch pens with someone.”

Most people instantly stop what they’re doing to switch pens with another participant. Some people interrupt other participants and tell them “We’re supposed to switch pens.” Still others find their pen suddenly snatched from their hand by someone a bit too eager to complete the task.

The exercise continues like this for several more minutes until the review questions are answered. No matter that I told them to prioritize answering the questions over completing the additional tasks. Participants consistently stop what they’re doing when each new task is displayed on the screen. 

They just can’t help themselves. Despite people’s initial intention to focus on the review questions, social pressure makes it almost impossible. Even the people who try to stay on task are verbally or even physically cajoled into doing the wrong thing.

My little exercise is hardly new. Psychologist Solomon Ash ran a novel experiment in 1951 where he found that social pressure caused people to answer to simple question incorrectly. You can see an excellent re-enactment on YouTube.

Customer service leaders can prevent social pressure from derailing customer service by setting clear expectations, actively encouraging good performance, and quickly correcting poor performance.

I like to give participants a second try when I run the review question activity. This time, we cover set of behavioral expectations before we begin. For example, participants agree that they will ignore the additional tasks until they answer all of the questions. 

An interesting change occurs in round two. There is now social pressure to do the right thing. A few participants still can’t help themselves and stop what they’re doing whenever a new task appears on the screen. But this time around, it is much easier for other participants to ignore them since the majority of people are intently focused on answering the questions in line with our agreement. Some people even remind these over-eager participants that they’re supposed to be answering the review questions first.


Unconscious Social Norming

I interviewed Camille for my book, Service Failure, and included her story in a chapter called “Conformity is Contagious.” It was courageous of her to give an honest assessment of her work performance. It was also unusual to find someone like her because employees often aren’t aware that culture is influencing their behavior.

Culture is often developed as groups of people co-develop social norms. These norms can be altered as new people join the team. A new employee might create a divisive atmosphere. That in turn might cause the team’s performance to drop. Good employees might leave and be replaced by more bad apples. Soon, service levels begin to decline. This leads to more angry customers which in turn makes everyone’s job even harder and less enjoyable.

The unconscious impact of social norms was first discovered in 1935 by psychologist Muzafer Sherif. He conducted an experiment where people were placed in one end of a dark room with a tiny point of light displayed at the other end of the room. A phenomenon called the autokinetic effect makes the light appear to move even though it really isn’t.

Subjects were asked to estimate how far the light had traveled. When acting alone, their estimates varied widely. When they were placed in a group, subjects quickly established a group norm. Interviews conducted after the experiment revealed that subjects weren’t aware that their perceptions were influenced by the other people in their group. 

How do you ensure customer service teams develop positive social norms? 

The key is to be deliberate about the culture you want. Define it. Identify the types of behaviors that match and don’t match. Constantly support and reinforce these behaviors with employees.

There's a model called the Employee Engagement Cycle that identifies several specific places where an organization can deliberately influence culture:

  • Recruiting: hire people who will be a positive influence.
  • On-boarding: show new hires how to be a part of our culture.
  • Development: remind employees of cultural values through regular training.
  • Evaluation: include cultural alignment in the employee evaluation process.
  • Exits: encourage employees to leave the organization if they don’t fit the culture.


Camille’s Conclusion

There was a happy ending to Camille’s story. She left the hotel with the toxic culture and joined another hotel. Her new employer had a culture that valued outstanding service and Camille felt much more comfortable. She fit in by being herself.

People sometimes ask me if customer service skills come naturally or can they be acquired. I think Camille’s example proves it’s a bit of both. She had the natural skills to be great, but she had to be in the right environment to use them. Once she found that environment, Camille was able to build on the skills she already had and become even better at service.

New Training Video: Leading a Customer-centric Culture

I’m excited to announce my new customer service training video on If you aren’t familiar with, it’s a fabulous subscription-based library that’s full of video training courses on wide range of topics.

My course is called Leading a Cutomer-centric Culture. It’s a short overview of the three steps required to build a customer-focused culture. The class is based on my service offering, The Journey to a Customer-focused Culture.

You can view the first video in the course below or on the website.

A subscription is required to view the entire class, but they offer a 10-day free trial so you can check it out. The free trail gives you unlimited access to’s entire library! 

7-day free trial

When it comes to service, is conformity contagious?

There are probably a lot of reasons why a company can become known for exceptionally good or bad service. One possibility I’d like to consider is conformity. This post poses more questions than it answers, so I welcome your comments.

Conformity is a strange mixture of social pressures. We may go along with the group out of respect for social norms or because that many people can't possibly be wrong. In service, conformity can exist among employees and among customers’ perceptions.

Employee Conformity
Walk into any In-n-Out during a busy rush and you’ll see a whirlwind of employees serving customers, preparing orders, and cleaning up. If you look carefully, you’ll see employees taking subtle cues from each other. They interact with each other in a positive manner. Each person hustles to do their job quickly and correctly because another employee is depending on them to keep things moving. A lazy or rude employee at In-n-Out would stick out like a sore thumb.

Poor customer service can also be contagious among employees. They loiter and talk while customers go unnoticed. They complain to each other about customers, co-workers, and corporate. Soon it becomes uncool to go out of your way to serve a customer.

Customer Conformity
Nordstrom may be one of the all-time customer service legends, but I have yet to have a good experience shopping there. I’ve even gone back many times against my better judgment because I keep thinking it’s me. Maybe I’m unlucky, maybe I was having a bad day the last time, maybe I’m just not Nordstrom’s material.

The strangest part is people tend to get a little weird when I tell them I’m personally not a fan of Nordstrom. “What do you mean, you don’t think Nordstrom has good service?!” I often start feeling the pull of social pressure and silently ask myself whether I need to give them one more try.

This experience makes me wonder if customers conform in their opinions of businesses. For example, does the Cheesecake Factory offer amazing food at ridiculously low prices, or could there be another reason why people routinely wait more than an hour to eat there? (Or both? Mmmmm. Cheesecake Factory...) On the other hand, you may have an outstanding customer service experience at the DMV, but prepare to be mocked if you choose to share your story with friends.

What do you think?
For now, it's all food for thought but I hope this subject may become a chapter in my book, The Unnatural Act of Customer Service. I welcome your comments, especially if you have links to information on the subject or personal stories to share.