I hate to break it to you, but here's the scoop: Just about any business advantage that you pride yourself on can be copied by a competitor. The only question is when your competitors are going to get around to it.
The culture of your company is the exception to this rule. Strong company cultures are overwhelmingly knockoff-resistant. At Apple, insiders such as former Senior Vice President Jay Elliot credit much of the company's success in retailing to the cultural fit Apple looks for and inspires in its personnel: With a team that's totally wedded to the Apple culture, Cupertino doesn't need to sweat the imitation Apple Stores now popping up with identical furniture and Apple gear for sale. Those knockoff stores will always lack staff who have the all-crucial Apple mindset.
Or consider Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. Above all else, here's the factor to which Four Seasons' founder and chairman Isadore Sharp credits his company's extraordinary and sustained success:
Over the years, we've initiated many new ideas that have been copied and are now the norm in the industry. But the one idea that our customers value the most cannot be copied: the consistent quality of our exceptional service. That service is based on a corporate culture.
Consciously building a company culture: why bother?
Building (or overhauling) a company culture isn't for the faint of heart, and it's not for those looking for a quick gain. But it's a key creator and sustainer of any company whose image and livelihood depend on a superior customer service. Here's why:
The number of interactions between customers and staff is nearly infinite, the number of chances to get things wrong or right nearly innumerable. Or, if you want to try to put some numbers on it, Cornell's Center for Hospitality Research estimates that a business such as a two-hundred-and-fifty-room hotel will have some five thousand interactions between staff and guests per day. There's no way someone in a leadership position can dictate every single one of those five thousand interactions. Rather, a leader's only chance to get the preponderance of these interactions right is to develop a shared cultural understanding of what needs to be done - and why.
The ongoing technology and connectivity revolution amplifies the problems of not having a strong culture. The best customer service approach in social media, for example, is to have people who are steeped in your culture handle the social media, and the best email responses to customers come from staff members who understand what is and isn't consonant within your culture. The risks of deviating from this are potentially catastrophic because of the way issues can spread on the internet like wildfire.
Employees have incredibly well-calibrated b-llsh-t detectors (to repurpose Hemingway's immortal phrase). So, cultural alignment throughout all levels of your company is the only way to avoid internal bitterness at organizational inconsistencies that look like unfairness - bitterness that ultimately can end up scalding your customers.
Finally, consider the number one complaint I hear from consulting clients at the helm of businesses? It's "I keep hearing that employees act differently - and not for the better - when I'm out of the building." With a great company culture, your employees will act consistently. They won't depend on your presence to remind them how to act. Their motivation will come from within themselves, reinforced by all those around them.
Start with a single sentence
Here's an actual mission statement I found covered with mildew in the closet of a defunct company, where no doubt it had been tossed within days of the brainstorming session that created it:
This is not how a great company culture starts. A company's culture can begin with words, but they should represent a decision - something you actually stand for, that is then expressed in the clearest, and ideally fewest, words.
Something like this:
(The Ritz-Carlton's Motto)
(The central line in Four Seasons' "Our Goals, Our Beliefs, Our Principles")
Next, spell out - briefly and clearly - how you plan to treat customers, vendors, and employees
Augment this core sentence with a brief and clear expression of how you intend to treat people in your business dealings. That way, everything you do can be benchmarked against the standard you set, and your culture, as a consequence, can be molded and strengthened. Lay out in your core values how you want customers, employees, and vendors to be treated. Say it clearly: If your opinion is that employees and vendors should be treated as you would like to be treated, write that down. If there are specific ways you want customers to feel when interacting with your company - for example, if you want to give them a memorable, enjoyable, and safe experience where even their unexpressed desires are realized - write that down.
Here's one way to think through the areas you want to cover, and why: An employee focus dramatically affects customers. Only appropriately treated, motivated, empowered, growing employees will consistently give a great experience to customers. A vendor focus also affects customers. Only appropriately treated vendors, acting as true partners, can come through for your customers in times of need. Finally, an obsessive customer focus, realized through your employees and vendors, becomes the icing on the cake.
Your core values are just the start - but they are a start
Core values can only go so far, but make sure they go somewhere by taking the following six steps:
1. Write them. Simply. Briefly.
2. Accept and solicit feedback on them.
3. Reinforce them continually. I suggest that for five minutes every morning you stress one value, or an aspect of one value, at your departmental meeting. If that's too often, try weekly. But not just annually at a company picnic. Annual anything is the enemy
4. Make them visual. The Ritz-Carlton has "credo cards" - laminated accordion-fold cards that each employee carries during work hours. The brand's entire core beliefs, plus shared basics of guest and employee interactions, fit on that card. (Horst Schulze, the legendary founding president of The Ritz-Carlton, says people chuckled twenty years ago when he said "laminated card"; they're not laughing now.) Zappos highlights one of its core values on each box it ships out. And sometimes "visual" doesn't mean words at all. One way that FedEx shows that safety is a core value is via the orange shoulder belts in its vans: Everyone can see - from twenty-five yards away - that the driver's wearing a belt.
5. Make them the focus of orientation. That way, if safety is one of your core values and you stress this at orientation, on day two, when the new employee's coworker tells him "In this restaurant, we stack the high chairs in front of the emergency exit when we need more room to do our prepwork," he'll experience cognitive dissonance and work on a way to align the actions of the company with the core values they're supposed to reflect.
6. Most of all, train, support, hire, and, if necessary, use discipline to enforce what's important to you. A map is distinct from the territory that it defines, and a core values statement is similarly two-dimensional until the right people with the right attitudes bring it to life. You'll be amazed where this "map" can take you - with the right people and energetic guidance.
© 2012 Micah Solomon, author of High-Tech, High-Touch Customer Service