Service Lessons From Seattle

Imagine if business, labor and government leaders got together and created an agency to improve customer service across the country. Such an agency would be dedicated to promoting national service standards, raising awareness and providing education about proven, best-in-class practices.

In fact, the organization already exists. It’s called the National Initiative for Service Excellence (NISE). Unfortunately, it isn’t in the US. NISE is an agency in Barbados, a lovely island in the Caribbean that has decided to take service quality seriously.

Among NISE’s many activities is to organize benchmarking tours to service-leading companies around the world. Last September, a Barbadian delegation traveled to Seattle, where they visited a variety of organizations known for innovative service practices. My colleague, Christine Frishholz, and I had the honor to host the delegation.

The selection of Seattle as a destination makes perfect sense.  The Pacific Northwest is known for technology, airplanes and coffee shops, but it has also earned a reputation as a center of excellence for customer service. The area is home to an impressive list of companies that regularly earn top rankings in national customer satisfaction surveys, including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Costco, Amazon, Alaska Airlines and REI. Over the course of a week, Christine and I introduced the delegates to a number of these Seattle-area companies, where they received presentations, tours and demonstrations from both executives and front-line service workers.

Many of the showcased companies have developed distinctive approaches to service delivery, and some have created novel technology and management practices to further their service strategies. We’ll discuss some of these innovations in later posts, but for now I’d like to point out a few of the common threads that became evident as our tour progressed.

First, and most important, was the focus on employees. We were impressed to learn how many of the service leaders we visited are also listed among Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For. Over and over, we heard executives speak passionately about their company’s loyalty to its employees. Particularly interesting were revelations into the way that new hires are trained and initiated into these organizations. In many cases, technical “job training” is considered secondary, to be introduced only after employees are thoroughly immersed in the company’s culture, history and values. Because of their emphasis on the employee experience, these companies have been able to attract and retain the best candidates, and to create a culture of pride that is evident to their customers.

Second, nearly every company we visited emphasized community service, at both a corporate and an individual employee level. For these organizations, customer service and community service were seen as two sides of the same coin. Most of them provide a substantial amount of paid time off for employees to do volunteer work, and many use community service activities as an integral part of their training and team-building programs. The result is that they establish a genuine connection with their neighbors and customers, which effectively differentiates them in the marketplace.

The third common message we heard is that sales and service are interchangeable. We were invited to a pre-shift meeting at a Nordstrom store, where the department managers shared their daily sales targets and talked about how superior service would enable them to achieve their financial goals. Sales wasn’t seen as a dirty word – they recognized that customers wanted nothing more than to make purchases, so long as they were making the best purchases from the most trusted source. Even at REI, a co-op that returns its profits to its members at the end of the year, effective selling is seen as a way to serve customers well. Their CEO’s mantra: “No mission without margin.”

Finally, these companies are genuinely modest about their achievements. As we listened to their representatives describe their approach to serving customers, we heard the same phrases over and over: “We’re still far from perfect”, “We have a long way to go”, “We’re always working at getting better”. It seemed that the companies with the best service were the most reluctant to take credit for it. Pete Nordstrom, President of Merchandising at – yes, Nordstrom – invited the delegates to his company’s corporate offices and talked at length about the organization his family built over four generations. He was humble about the company’s reputation for service, and claimed that their principle strategy was to trust employees to do the best thing for customers.

Of course, being a service leader isn’t solely a result of culture, values and good intentions. Superior service also requires lots hard work and significant investment in technology, training, incentives, process standardization, etc. All of the companies we met with have made these investments, although their specific strategies and choices have varied considerably.  Nevertheless, when the delegation from Barbados met at the end of the tour to discuss their observations, it was these common lessons about focusing on employees and the community, service as a sales strategy and continuous service improvement, that made the strongest impressions.

Peter Gurney

Click here to see a list of the companies on the Service Benchmarking Tour . . .

Can Nordstrom Make Barbados Nicer?. . .

This entry was posted on Saturday, October 31st, 2009 at 7:50 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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