The effect of culture on customer service

By Steve Simpson.steve-simpson-72-dpi

Commentary on how to create a culture of service is generally lacking – and has been over recent years. In considering how to create a service culture, some leaders reference their customer-feedback strategies, including mystery shopping, customer surveys and the like.

Other leaders talk about the fact that customer service needs to be on the leadership team’s priority list.

Other writers and commentators reference customer-service training provided to staff as the vehicle to get the culture right. 

Each of the angles raises important elements but misses the point. What they canvass is the mix of customer service-related tactics and strategies they believe ought to be deployed that they hope by osmosis will filter through to the culture. Few commentators talk about workplace culture directly, which is a huge oversight.

All of us know that customer-service training can be diminished or made obsolete by a culture that doesn’t support training or customer service. All of us have encountered companies that go through the process of measuring customer satisfaction, which becomes an end in itself and fails to impact on staff, and all of us have experienced situations where a company has so-called ‘priorities’ that are merely tick-box exercises to placate boards or other stakeholders.

The point is this: if the culture isn’t ‘right’, then customer-related tactics and strategies can count for very little.

One of the key reasons culture is not addressed directly relates to its complexity. Read any book on corporate culture and, almost without exception, if a definition is provided, it will be complex, academic or philosophical. That’s where my concept of UGRs – unwritten ground rules – has a big part to play.

UGRs are defined as people’s perceptions of ‘this is the way we do things around here’. They drive people’s behaviour yet, paradoxically, they are seldom talked about openly. Sample UGRs in a company include:

  • At our meetings, it isn’t worth complaining, as we know nothing will get done.
  • The only time anyone gets spoken to by the boss is when something is wrong.
  • The company talks about the importance of customer service, but we know they don’t really mean it so we don’t have to worry about it.

It is the UGRs in a team or company that constitute its culture.

So what have UGRs to do with customer service?

For customer-service initiatives to realise their potential, the culture – and UGRs – must be right. As a first step, a vitally important question ought to be considered to ensure the cultural side of the equation is addressed: what are the key cultural attributes (KCAs) we need in place for us to deliver the kind of service we’d like to deliver?

This is known as ‘envisaging’ the kind of culture that is necessary. And it is recommended that the final list of KCA numbers no more than five or six. For illustrative purposes, let’s presume the following KCAs are identified among the top six:

  • Quality inter-departmental relationships.
  • Customers considered as part of all key decisions.
  • People are keen to look for better ways to do things.

Once the priority KCAs have been agreed, it makes sense to get a fix on the prevailing culture as it relates to these KCAs. This can be undertaken by conducting a ‘UGR stocktake’ – a methodology created after two Australian universities funded world-first research into UGRs. To get an understanding of the current UGRs, get people to complete the sentence to given ‘lead-ins’. Using the above KCAs as an example, people could be invited to anonymously complete the sentences for these lead-ins:

  • Around here, when it comes to dealing with other departments …
  • Around here, when decisions are made, the customers’ perspective is …
  • Around here, when it comes to change …

UGR stocktakes have been completed in companies across the world and the results are often a surprise to leadership teams responsible for the provision of customer service across the organisation.

Steve Simpson is an international speaker and author who works with organisations across the world to help them understand and strategically improve their workplace culture. He is the co-author of the recently released book A Culture Turned. Visit

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