Why a disciplined approach can get you on the way to better service

I was the chief learning officer of a $2.4 billion bank holding company when we embarked on changing our institution’s culture of service, which had drawn numerous customer complaints for poor quality. Internally, even our own employees rated service as extremely low.

Over five years, I drove the change initiative with senior management’s support. All employees were held accountable to new service standards. Looking back, our approach offers many lessons on optimizing results in any initiative.


Make service a priority

We developed clear expectations of service for all employees and wrote them into performance goals. Each employee was required to review new service skills in advance of four one-on-one meetings with his or her manager, and then demonstrate the behaviors through interactive discussions.

Managers knew which employees had not studied the materials and set clear expectations for follow-up meetings to reinforce the importance of the initiative.

Managers were trained as service coaches, and were instructed on how to run the training meetings with their employees and give on-the-job feedback that reinforced employee use of desired service skills.

Team goals were set in each location for service excellence, and we measured outcomes through mystery shoppers, surveying customers and employee-to-employee feedback via internal service feedback cards sent to the training department. Employee incentives were 40 percent dependent on achieving department goals including service standards.


Embed it in the culture

We recognized service stars very publicly, and in organizational communications provided detailed examples from internal and external customer interactions. These stories were integrated into follow-up training.

We created guides for huddle meetings that managers held weekly for their departments to further practice skills. Each week, employees practiced another service skill and role-played customer scenarios to reinforce expectations and share experiences.

In addition, we established a service management committee. Employees at all levels participated in monthly committee meetings and regularly gave the committee suggestions from themselves and their peers on how to maintain and be innovative in the initiative.

We asked departments to set clear standards for external and internal service, and negotiate between departments for outcome measures. Results were regularly tracked and reported.

Over five years, we achieved a 30 percent improvement in service metrics overall — and decreased customer complaints by more than 70 percent.


What lessons can be learned? 

Be clear on expectations and crystalize them into performance goals. Set clear behavioral standards and ensure employees are well trained and fully committed to actions that support the standards.

Expect managers to drive results through performance management, ongoing coaching and continual feedback and encouragement.

Hold employees collectively accountable for expected outcomes and continually inspect what you expect. Provide reinforcing feedback that demonstrates senior leader commitment to the initiative.

Create the right mental models through stories that emphasize how internal and external customers gained through the initiative. Provide reinforcement opportunities to continually sharpen the expected behaviors.

Ensure engagement and “skin in the game” at all levels. Foster management from a team perspective and ensure employees are committed to the greater good and are collaborating across silos.