Why Customers Should Not Help Write Your Vision

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

A question I'm often asked is what role customers should play in helping a company write its customer service vision.

A customer service vision is a shared definition of outstanding service that gets everyone on the same page. Creating one is the most important step you can take toward building a customer-focused culture.

My answer surprises people. I don't think customers should be involved at all when you write your customer service vision.

Group of professionals gathered to write a customer service vision statement.

What is the danger of asking customers what they want?

There's an old episode of The Simpsons where Homer discovers he has a half-brother named Herb Powell. 

Herb is the CEO of a car company called Powell Motors, and he's frustrated by his design team's uninspiring new car concepts. So he enlists Homer to help design his company's next car, believing that Homer personifies the wants and needs of the average American consumer.

The result is a disaster. The car, dubbed The Homer, is so overloaded with unnecessary features that it can't be sold at a profit. 

There's a real-life lesson here. Customers have diverse tastes and interests. And a customer merely wanting something doesn't automatically mean a company can make money providing it.

I’m a huge fan of the online pet store, Chewy. It offers convenient online ordering, a huge selection of products, incredible prices, and has a fun and helpful service culture. Chewy’s sales have grown rapidly over the past several years, but the retailer has yet to turn a profit.

At The Overlook, a vacation rental cabin my wife and I own, we've gotten all sorts of requests. A few have asked for air conditioning, which would be cost-prohibitive to install given the short warm period of the year is also a slow time. Others suggested we list The Overlook on Airbnb, but the listing fees would add expense without bringing in much additional revenue. (Airbnb would also make The Overlook more expensive for our guests.)

Sometimes different groups of customers have conflicting needs. For example, all the rooms at The Overlook have either a king or a queen bed. This is perfect for our target market, but others would prefer bunk beds, sleeper sofas, and air mattresses to accommodate as many people as possible in one house.

When I researched customer-focused organizations while writing The Service Culture Handbook, I consistently found these companies resisted the urge to be all things to all people. That’s why you won’t find a chicken salad on the menu at In-N-Out Burger, but you will find a line of loyal customers waiting to get their hands on a delicious cheeseburger at 10pm on a Wednesday evening.

Who should help write your vision?

The vision should be rooted in reality. It should describe how you’d like to serve customers in the future based on how you serve customers today when everything is going well. For this reason, all employees should be given a chance to provide input on your customer service vision.

This step-by-step guide describes how to do that.

When it comes to drafting the vision statement, there should only be 7-10 people in the room, plus an outside facilitator if you decide to use one. More than that, and the group becomes unwieldy. Fewer than that, and not enough perspectives are included.

The group should be comprised of a representative sample of employees:

  • At least one frontline employee. They keep it real.

  • At least one senior leader. They provide authority.

  • At least one mid-level manager or supervisor. They're the link between execs and the front lines.

Many organizations try to have the executive team create the customer service vision at a retreat. My research reveals that's a big mistake.

Should you ever ask customers about your vision?

Absolutely!

The time to ask customers for their input is after you write the vision and start using it to guide your operations. This is when customer feedback can be invaluable. Keep in mind you're not asking customers what they want, you're asking them how well you are executing your vision.

At The Overlook, our vision is welcome to your mountain retreat. We constantly use guest feedback from surveys, comments, and even our own observations, to refine our approach. For example, we added extra guest towels after learning that many guests like to shower after returning from a sweaty hike, but don’t want to use the same towel later that evening when they use the hot tub.

How can I write a vision statement?

Here are some resources that can help you write an effective customer service vision:


Lessons from The Overlook: Why We Revised Our 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 arrived at The Overlook earlier this month just as our property manager was finishing up a tour. A couple and their daughter were visiting a few properties to decide which one to book for a family getaway later this year.

They appeared to really like our cabin. "It's beautiful," one said. Another exclaimed, "You have a very nice place!" 

We checked in with our property manager a few days later and learned they rented another cabin. The couple really liked The Overlook, but they ultimately decided they wanted to be closer to town so they could walk to shops and restaurants.

That bit of feedback solidified something we've been thinking of for months. Sally and I knew then we needed to tweak our customer service vision.

Beautiful day on the outdoor couch on the deck outside The Overlook.

The Backstory on Our Vision

If you read this blog regularly, you know how often I stress the importance of creating a customer service vision. It's a shared definition of outstanding service that you can use as a compass to point everyone (and every decision) in the same direction.

Here's our original vision for The Overlook:

Welcome to your mountain community retreat.

Each word was carefully chosen to represent the experience we wanted to create for our guests. You can read the full story, but here's a summary:

  • Welcome: we want our guests to feel welcome throughout their stay.

  • Your: we want our guests to feel like the place is their own, so they'll treat it well while they're there and return on a regular basis.

  • Mountain: Guests come here for the mountains, so we'll emphasize that experience.

  • Community: We want our guests to experience that charming small-town friendliness that comes with being part of a rural community.

  • Retreat: A mountain cabin like The Overlook is a place to get away from it all, so we want to help our guests relax.

The one word we got stuck on when we did an annual vision review last year was "community." We just weren't sure how to emphasize community for our guests so they could enjoy the town of Idyllwild the way we enjoyed it.

For example, we loved the Fourth of July parade, which brought out a festive crowd of locals to see the pageantry. Where else but a small town can you see Santa Claus waving from a fire truck in July?

Santa Claus waving from the top of a fire truck in Idyllwild.

Or a dog named Max who happens to be the elected mayor?

Mayor Max enjoying the Fourth of July Parade in Idyllwild.

 

What Guest Feedback Says

It's important to keep in mind that your style and preferences may not be a perfect representation of your customers. 

For example, there's a faux deer antler chandelier over the dining table. It's definitely not our style and Sally and I would replace it in a heartbeat if the Overlook was just our private cabin. However, we've gotten so many positive comments about it that we know it's the right decor.

Faux deer antler chandelier

So looking at guest feedback, our guests are staying at The Overlook for a retreat while the local community is far less important.

  • "Everything is well maintained and beautifully appointed and the views of the city lights, sunsets, and mountain landscapes are simply spectacular."

  • "Everything you need to do what you need. Relax, hike, run, bike, swim, etc."

  • "Great cabin to build memories in!"

 

Our New Vision Statement

It's natural for a customer service vision to go through a revision or two. In most cases, adjusting just one or two words is all that's needed.

Here's our new vision:

Welcome to your mountain retreat

That's it. We simply removed "community." Sally and I realized we've been focusing on making The Overlook a welcoming retreat in the mountains all along. Here are just a few things we've added since buying the cabin:

  • Extra towels for the hot tub

  • Family-friendly games, puzzles, and DVDs

  • Access to Netflix and other streaming services

  • Upgraded and expanded seating on the deck

  • Extra seating on the catwalk

  • Game room with a ping pong table

Updating our vision has provided amazing clarity. We'll continue to use our vision to guide our decision-making, with a renewed emphasis on making The Overlook the perfect place for a welcoming mountain retreat.


When Do You Need a Customer Service Vision Facilitator?

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

My client had been working on creating a customer service vision for several months.

For the uninitiated, a customer service vision is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that acts as a compass to point all employees in the same direction. Creating one is an important first step towards developing a strong service culture.

The challenge was my client's executive team could not agree on the wording. There were multiple drafts that felt close, but it still wasn't quite right.

That's when the client hired me to facilitate the process. After two hours, we had a customer service vision statement that the President and CEO both loved.

Hiring a professional facilitator is not the right move for every organization. It can be costly or you might already have someone internal who is capable. Here's when you should consider it.

Woman facilitating a vision writing meeting.

Situation #1: You're Stuck

Some teams, like the client I mentioned above, get the process started and then become stuck.

I shared the process I use for writing a customer service vision in this blog post and in The Service Culture Handbook. The steps can appear deceptively simple, though there are some pitfalls along the way.

For example, one customer service leader told me she had gathered some employees for a vision writing session and the group came up with two good but very different statements. Now she was having a difficult time merging the two together into one clear vision.

This is one of the most difficult parts of the process, in my experience. It's also an example of where a professional facilitator should be able to help your team get unstuck.

 

Situation #2: You're in a Hurry

Companies sometimes spend months on creating a customer service vision. The typical process I use with clients takes about two weeks:

  1. We gather input from employees via a survey
  2. A group of 7-10 employees meet to write the vision
  3. I help my client create a plan to share the vision

Step two, the vision writing meeting, typically takes just two hours. 

It can take a deft touch, particularly during the vision writing meeting, to gently move people forward. There have been many times when the group has wanted to have an extended discussion, while as a facilitator I knew a little time pressure would help everyone better access their strongest feelings.

Moving at that swift pace can be difficult without a professional facilitator. Part of the facilitator's role is to ensure there's a clear path and then quickly move everyone towards the goal. 

 

Situation #3: You Need Someone Neutral

Executives often have strong feelings about concepts that should be reflected in the customer service vision. 

That can make it difficult for an executive to simultaneously solicit input from employees while espousing their own ideas. Strong visions ideally contain a balance of perspectives that ring true for everyone.

One client had really strong feelings about certain concepts being included in the customer service vision, but employees struggled to embrace them. Through the facilitation process, we learned the roadblock was the specific wording this leader was using rather than the concepts themselves. A few minor tweaks to the language and suddenly everyone was happy.

A facilitator can help in these situations. Ideally, this person will help you balance the perspectives and input from all participants, while ensuring a key executive's desires are still incorporated into the final product.

 

Finding a Facilitator

There are a few places you can go to find a facilitator to help you write your customer service vision.

Try a professional association such as the Organizational Development Network or the Association for Talent Development. These organizations both have a network of local chapters, which might be the best route to go for a small business seeking a less expensive option.

You can also ask for referrals. Many businesses have used a consultant to help facilitate a strategic planning session or an executive retreat.

If you get stuck, feel free to give me a call at 619-955-7946 or email me. Although vision facilitation is a service I provide, I'd be happy to walk you through the process and give you some suggestions with no obligation.


How Malaysia's HappyFresh Created a Customer Service Vision

I recently received an email from Timothy Chan, Regional Fleet Acquisition and Retention Specialist at HappyFresh.

While I get a lot of similar emails, this one stood out for both his enthusiasm and the fact that my book had somehow made it all the way to Malaysia.

"Tim from Malaysia here. I work for an online grocery shopping company. I have just finished reading your book, The Service Culture Handbook, and I must say I enjoyed it immensely. 

"I have just recently been put in charge of managing the customer service team at my company (after being transferred from the logistics department). Just last week I took your advice and held a meeting to decide on a customer service vision—it was a lot of fun and I am very happy with the vision my team ultimately decided upon. Now begins my more difficult task of really embedding the vision into our culture."

I was curious to learn more about how Chan and his team used the concepts from the book, so we corresponded via email and he graciously shared his story.

The HappyFresh customer service team.

The HappyFresh customer service team.

Q: Tell me a little about what your team does and the customers it serves.

"As Malaysia’s leading online grocery shopping company, our team is hard at work every day assisting and serving both our customers as well as our fleet of around 100 shoppers and deliverymen."

 

Q: What was the process to develop the customer service vision?

"I helped the team develop this vision by following the step-by-step guide provided in The Service Culture Handbook. Started by giving a presentation about Customer Service Vision which included a lot of stories from companies that have thrived by staying true to their visions (with particular emphasis on Zappos).

"The presentation was attended by representatives from the customer service and logistic team as well as the heads of Field Operations and HR. After the presentation, everyone was divided into 2 groups to draft their visions. By comparing the visions, we then decided on certain words that we felt simply could not be left out from the finalized vision and from these words our vision was born:

"Your professional, personal pal throughout our journey together."

 

Q: What does the vision mean to you?

"To me, the vision means that we should always strive to be a true friend—someone who truly cares and genuinely wants to help. However, we need to remember that we are also professionals and should always behave as such.

"The ‘journey’ part of the vision carries 2 meanings:

"Firstly, it is a reminder that we are on a never-ending journey of constantly striving to be as true to the vision as possible. Secondly, it reminds us that there are different parts to every journey (beginning, middle and end) and we should always act accordingly.

"What I love about the vision is that it can be applied equally well to the way we treat customers, our fleet of shoppers and drivers and also to the way we treat one another as colleagues."

 

Q: What are you doing to make sure everyone on your team knows the vision?

"I conduct regular 1 to 1 check-in sessions with each member of our small CS team. As we discuss how we can improve performance during these sessions, I try to refer to the vision as much as possible. Furthermore, one of our talented CS representatives, A.K., created stickers to stick on everyone’s laptops/desktops so that we can always clearly see our vision."

 

Q: What unexpected challenges or obstacles did you encounter throughout this process?

"It is not easy ingraining the vision into the psyche of a team. It takes a lot of effort to persistently champion the vision and to make other people start championing it as well. It is important to ‘walk the talk’, be willing to be vulnerable and be open to scrutiny."

 

Q: How has having a customer service vision been helpful?

"With so many KPIs, goals, frustrations and issues, having a customer service vision has been like having a guiding star to turn to whenever we felt unsure or overwhelmed."