The Hidden Danger of Murky Buzzwords

Years ago, a company hired me to conduct customer service training that showed employees how to align their service with the company's corporate values. 

One of those values was integrity. 

I interviewed several employees and managers to prepare for the training. None of them explained integrity the same way. Some employees were aware it was a value, but hadn't given it any thought. 

"It's just some corporate thing," explained several people I talked to.

To put some context in place, integrity has been a buzzword for corporate values statements for some time. A 2004 study by Booz Allen and the Aspen Institute found that 90 percent of corporate values statements listed ethics or integrity. Even Enron, the company made famous for a massive accounting scandal that sent executives to prison, listed integrity among its core values in the company's 2000 annual report.

Herein lies the challenge for customer service leaders. So many buzzwords that guide our decision-making are murky. 

Guy scratching his head in confusion.

Common Murky Buzzwords

Here's an experiment you can try. Share the following terms with your leadership team. Ask each person to write down a brief definition of each one. Then compare what people wrote.

  • Employee Engagement

  • Customer Success

  • Customer Experience

  • Leadership

  • Empowerment

My guess is you'll get a lot of great definitions, but they'll all be slightly different. 

This creates a real challenge. For instance, most leaders I speak with agree that employee engagement is important. Yet they have wildly different ideas of what it really means. It's pretty hard to improve something if we don't agree on what we're trying to improve.

I once sat in on a conversation between an IT director and the two managers that reported to him. He was frustrated with the department's performance, but was having a difficult time articulating what he felt was going wrong and what needed to improve. 

Finally, the director blurted out, "You need to be more managerial, or... you're fired!"

Nobody in the room, including the IT director, had any idea what "be more managerial" meant or how one could go about doing it. 

You can't improve something if you don't define it.

Sample Definitions

I don't want to leave you high and dry, so here are some sample definitions for the five terms I shared above. 

Keep in mind these aren't the only definitions. You're free to find another source or even come up with your own. What's important is you establish a common frame of reference with the leaders and employees in your organization.

Employee Engagement: An engaged employee is deliberately contributing to organizational success. (source: Jeff Toister)

Customer Success: An organizational function that helps customers get maximum value out of a product or service. (source: Hubspot)

Customer Experience: The sum of all the interactions that a customer has with an organization over the life of the “relationship” with that company… and, especially, the feelings, emotions, and perceptions the customer has about those interactions. (source: Annette Franz)

Leadership: A leader is someone who inspires people to take action. Leadership is the skillset or tools they use to do so. (source: Grace Judson)

Empowerment: a process of enabling employees to deliver outstanding service to their customers. (source: Jeff Toister)

The Power of a Common Frame of Reference

If you've read this blog before, you may know I'm a proponent of companies adopting a unique customer service vision.

This is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that gets everyone on the same page. It binds the group with a common purpose, and establishes a common frame of reference when it comes to delivering great service.

Some companies, like the client I mentioned at the start of this post, choose to use corporate values as the customer service vision. That's fine, so long as everyone has a shared understanding of what they meant.

Which brings us back to integrity. 

Through a series of workshops, my client's employees decided that "integrity" should mean doing the right thing for the customer by trying to be the customer's advocate. Together, we brainstormed real workplace stories that were examples of serving with integrity.

Suddenly, the word had meaning. Employees could use integrity as a guide when handling tricky situations. Managers could use it when giving employees feedback. Everyone was on the same page.

Take Action

Identify some of the buzzwords that are floating around your workplace. Take time to define them, and make sure everyone shares the same definition. 

This exercise not only gets everyone on the same page, it can greatly influence your next steps. 

For example, if a company is blindly pursuing employee engagement without defining it, leaders might conduct a survey, form a committee, and be done with it. But if leaders understand that an engaged employee knows what makes the company successful and is committed to helping achieve that success, leaders might first make sure every employee understands the company's vision and goals.

Does Your Company Have Too Many Missions and Visions?

The vice president shared a draft of her company's new values project.

She had been working with two other executives to create them. They had come up with nine after several brainstorming sessions.

On paper, they looked good. These were solid, reasonable values that were all straight out of the corporate values catalog. Nothing controversial. 

There were two problems. 

The first issue was the company already had a lot of cultural artifacts. A cultural artifact is something that helps people understand your organization's culture, like a mission, vision, or set of values. 

This company already had a lot:

  • Mission statement
  • Service promise
  • Service motto
  • Brand tagline

Now, they were planning to introduce a new set of values on top of everything else. Which led to the second problem.

Some of those nine values weren't accurate. Communication was number three on the list. "Oh, we suck at communication!" said the vice president.

Perhaps you face a similar mess. Here's how you can untangle it.

Focus vs. Confusion

Companies' cultural artifacts frequently feel empty because organizations often have too many or the existing ones are inauthentic.

In the rush to create another tagline, motto, or corporate vision, nobody takes the time to decide what one statement is the most important or ensure all the artifacts are in alignment.

If everything is important, then nothing is important.

In The Service Culture Handbook, I related the story of a restaurant chain I worked with that had too many cultural artifacts.

It had a mission statement, a brand promise, a set of four service promises, and a list of 17 service standards that waitstaff were expected to follow with every guest.

Employees weren't quite sure which was most important. 

This was especially challenging since some of these cultural artifacts didn't clearly support each other. For instance, the mission statement described a desire to create amazing experiences while the service standards emphasized up-selling and efficiency.

At an executive retreat, I posed the question to the CEO, his executive team, and the general managers of each individual restaurant: which cultural artifact is most important?

There initially wasn't a consensus, but it led to a good discussion. The group finally agreed that the mission statement should be the primary guide for the employees. 

Next, they decided to rethink their existing cultural artifacts. Some were eliminated while others were simplified and aligned with the mission. The 17 service standards were slimmed down to 10. 

The restaurant chain's leadership team then communicated the revised artifacts to employees with a renewed emphasis on the mission.

Not surprisingly, service quality improved once employees had a consistent understanding of what outstanding service should be.


Where a Customer Service Vision Fits In

In customer-focused companies, the most important cultural artifact is a customer service vision.

A customer service vision is a shared definition of outstanding service that guides all employees' actions when it comes to serving customers.

What if your company already has some pretty important artifacts?

When my clients face this challenge, I usually suggest two options. Option one is to make one of your existing artifacts do double-duty as the customer service vision.

In many companies, the organization's mission, vision, or values is also the customer service vision. There's no need to add yet another statement to the mix!

For example, take a look at REI's mission statement:

At REI, we inspire, educate and outfit for a lifetime of outdoor adventure and stewardship.

This is why the company exists (hence, the mission), but it also paints a clear picture of what type of service employees should strive to provide. Go visit an REI location today and you'll almost certainly find enthusiastic retail associates who will try to help you enjoy the outdoors!

In some cases, none of my clients' existing cultural artifacts are particularly inspiring. (They decide this, not me.) That's when I suggest a second option: replace one of your existing artifacts with the new vision.

I recently helped a client do this and it was amazing how much the new vision energized employees.


Take the Three Question Test

Here's an easy way to tell if a cultural artifact is actually relevant.

Select one of your cultural artifacts (mission, vision, values, motto, tagline, etc.). Talk to a random sample of employees and ask them three questions about that artifact:

  1. What is it?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. How does it guide the work that you do?

You can tell the artifact has virtually no meaning if employees aren't aware of it or can't give consistent or clear answers to those questions.

In customer-focused companies, every employee can give a consistent answer to the three questions when asked about the customer service vision.

You can learn more about customer service visions and how to create one here.