We shall, for the purposes of this paper, accept the proposition that we are moving from a culture that can be categorized as "you get what I give" to one where the customer is always right. In the real world, there are companies that do either, depending on their business model. But for the sake of argument we will assume the position of a company that is seeking to shift from the former to a more customer-centric vision of customer service. There are two elements to such a shift -- operational and cultural. Operations can be laid out in such a way that barriers to customer service that may have existed in the past are now removed, for example. Yet, because service is inherently customer-oriented, based on interactions, it is critical that the organization shifts to a customer-service-based culture. This is a massive cultural shift from an organizational culture where customer service is essentially an afterthought. Management can plow all the resources in the worlds new call centers and allowing all manner of returns and whatever else it wants -- and the infrastructure is important -- but if the organization's culture does not put the customer first all that spending will be in vain. The organizational culture has to be the primary place where this type of organizational change has to take place. This paper will examine some of the things that a company needs to be done to shift towards a service culture that emphasizes the primacy of the culture, drawing upon academic research in the subject.
When you start an organization from scratch, you can build that organization in whatever vision you choose. The corporate culture is built from the ground up, and every new person to join the company can be indoctrinated into the customer service philosophy the same way, so that this philosophy becomes the organizational culture with respect to customer service. It is much more difficult to change the culture of the company once it has been allowed to build a culture that does not emphasize the customer. The very first step in this process is to understand what a customer-focused culture is. Brady and Cronin (2001) sought to draw conclusions about the link between customer orientation within the company and customer service outcomes and noted that the customer orientation needs to be strong in order for a company to achieve high levels of customer satisfaction -- the two are intrinsically linked. While there are contextual variables, customer orientation has been shown to affect customer loyalty, which is a precursor to stable revenue streams (Homburg, Muller & Klarmann, 2011).
Customer orientation is understood variously as a "psychological phenomenon antecedent to critical job states" or "as frontline employee behaviors that are caused by these same job states" (Zablah, Franke, Brown & Bartholomew, 2012) -- clearly the second is the outcome of customer orientation. In English, this means that customer orientation is the dedication that the frontline employee has to achieving customer satisfaction. In this theoretical company, the employees have traditionally not had much motivation to strive for customer satisfaction. They may have either been oblivious to the needs of the customer or they didn't care. Customer orientation was minimal -- the employees may have been oriented differently. A good example of this is a car dealership where the sales people are paid per car sold. They are only concerned with satisfying the customer to the extent that they win the sale. They have almost no customer orientation.
A service culture, or high level of customer orientation, represents a 180 degree turnaround in terms of customer orientation. Wherever the customer previously placed on the organizations' hierarchy of importance, the customer now needs to be number one, and that starts with the organizational culture. The culture has to be defined at all levels of the organization as the central focus for frontline staff, to the point where they will do what needs to be done in order to meet the customer needs.
To change an organizational culture is hard work. The first thing is that the new culture needs to be defined, which is in the customer orientation. This needs to be supported, however. The personnel need to be supported which means that management needs to be enthusiastic leaders of the organizational cultural change process. From the CEO on down, the entire organization has to buy in to the new customer-focused culture. This shows all workers that the company is serious about changing its approach to customers, and frontline workers are more likely to buy into a culture change if they see that their leaders have bought in, since that sends the message throughout the organization that the culture change is permanent (Linnenluecke & Griffiths, 2010).
The culture change needs to be part of strategy as well. Management needs to rethink firm objectives around meeting the needs of the customer, and this is something that can only occur when there is a high level of managerial buy-in to the customer orientation. The frontline workers will need to be evaluated on their performance in terms of customer service, instead of other measures. This is important because most workers will do whatever it is that management is most likely to notice. If they are going to receive raises based on productivity, then they will focus on productivity, not customer service. This is important, because many shifts to a customer focus fail when frontline workers are not re-oriented through their workplace incentives and performance reviews to focus on the customer. The new customer focus needs to start as part of an organization-wide strategy, and have the actions and measures flow from that -- it cannot start with a desire to give better service and not be supported by anything else the organization is doing.
When a firm has changed its culture, it needs to also change its systems to reflect its new view on customer service. While the culture side of customer service has not really changed much since the first shops were opened in ancient Mesopotamia, the systems aspect of customer service has changed significantly. The first thing customers value is communication. There was a trend of offshoring customer service, which led to a decline in service standards, but the Internet and its wide variety of communications applications has led to a renewal of communication. Companies are using chat, automated help on websites and other modern technology to provide better service to their clients, without the need for building out more foreign call centers. This new technology also lowers the cost. In addition, companies appear to be more responsive when they offer a variety of ways for the customer to communicate with the company. This enhanced perception occurs regardless of the outcome of the communication. All interactions with customers create value (Salomonsson, Aberg & Allwood, 2012), so it is important that there are many ways for such interactions to occur. That the use of technology to provide the customer with the level of communication that he/she needs also saves the company money is a nice bonus.
Another trend in enhanced customer service is customer relationship management and big data. With these, companies are able to better track the interests and buying patterns of the customers. While this has obvious benefits for the company, it also benefits the customer. The customer forms a relationship with the company or brand whether that relationship is mutual or not. Gathering data about the customer's habits allows the company to reciprocate in a way, by showing that it understands the customer's needs. As an example, a company wants to offer a deal on a vacation to a customer browsing its website. If it knows that this customer goes to Costa Rica every year, it can offer a trip to Costa Rica -- this will be more effective than offering a hunting expedition to British Columbia. Knowing the buying patterns of customer is not just good business, it is good service because the customer appreciates when companies are able to anticipate needs to meet those needs. Whereas in the past this could only be done via interpersonal interactions, today this can be done with technology and data.
Complementary to this is social media and targeted communications. One of the things that social media does for companies is that it creates an opportunity for two -- way communication that did not exist previously. Matthews (2012) notes that brand value can be enhanced through the use of social media in both public relations and in customer service. The customer service element of this brings us back to the maxim that every customer interaction is an opportunity to provide great service and to build the customer's relationship with the brand.
Also with technology, a mobile-first mindset is something that many firms are starting to cultivate. They have recognized that for many consumers the way that digital media is consumed has moved to mobile. Many people for some reason choose mobile in…