Why Customers Should Not Help Write Your Vision

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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:


Culture Report Reveals Executives Disconnected From Reality

There's a scene in the movie, Office Space, that gets me every time. 

Bill Lumbergh, the clueless executive, announces a new culture initiative in an all-hands meeting. "So you should ask yourself, with every decision you make, is this good for the company?" A banner hangs overhead that reads "Is this good for the company?"

It was the beginning, middle, and end of the initiative. 

A new report from the consulting firm PwC shows this type of executive disconnect from corporate culture initiatives is real. A 2018 survey of 2,000 people in 50 countries found large gaps between what executives and employees felt about corporate culture.

You can read some stunning conclusions below or read the entire report here.

The words “company culture” written on a clipboard.

Consistency

Companies often create a mission, vision, or value statements to help define the culture. Yet the true culture is how people think and act. 

The report revealed a disconnect in how consistently the cultural statements were followed:

Screen Shot 2019-04-02 at 8.12.28 AM.png

At just 63 percent, even leaders sense there's a huge gap between the culture message and what people are actually doing. The perception is far worse among employees.

There are two causes that I frequently see.

The first is executives try to define the culture all by themselves. They sequester themselves in a conference room or hold a retreat, and dream up what they think the culture should be. 

I've called leaving your employees out of the process the worst mistake in building a service culture. That's because you need everyone represented to come up with an authentic description of how people should think and act.

The second leading cause of the consistency gap is too many culture initiatives are like the banner in Office Space. They're symbolic, with no real commitment behind them. 

So how should you define your culture? I recommend this proven process.

Priority

Employees don't always believe culture is a priority for senior leaders. This graphic is telling:

“culture is an important senior leadership agenda item.”

The root cause is often tied to how culture initiatives play out. The executive team dreams it up behind closed doors, an announcement is made, and employees see little else. 

There may be a culture committee or task force doing some work, but frontline employees don't see that and usually aren't involved. They just see their daily work continue as usual.

The customer-focused companies I researched for The Service Culture Handbook took a very different approach. Leaders in these organizations involved employees every step of the way. For example, a customer service leader at Cars.com shared customer feedback with her team on a daily basis, and solicited employees' ideas on how to fix issues.

Pride

Customer-obsessed employees take a lot of pride in the companies they work for. They love their products and services, believe in the mission, and are often customers themselves.

The PwC report revealed a big gap in company pride between executives and employees:

“I’m proud to be part of my organization.”

I interviewed psychologist Gemma Leigh Roberts for my latest book, Getting Service Right, to get a better understanding of the executive disconnect. She shared some interesting insight:

"Challenging your perception of business performance (which you are responsible for leading) can lead you to challenging your own performance, which can be painful for your ego and damaging for your confidence. In this scenario, sometimes executives choose not to acknowledge facts or consider them irrelevant, which is a self-protection strategy."

In other words, executives are human just like the rest of us. Our egos try to protect us from our personal failings, such as creating a miserable work culture.

Take Action

The PwC report revealed that 80 percent of respondents felt their organizational culture must change in the next five years.

If that's you, what are you going to do about it?

My suggestion is to start by defining the culture you want to have with a simple statement called a customer service vision. This is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that gets everyone on the same page.

You can use this step-by-step guide to help you create it. I've assembled some additional culture change resources here.