A service culture means the appreciation for exceptional service is part of the company’s DNA. Giving exceptional service to internal as well as external customers is a natural way of life and is considered most important for everyone in the organisation.

Why should companies and employees be interested? If you are engaged in delivering any service (or even a bundle of products and services) to customers, there are many important benefits in institutionalising a service culture in your organisation:

* A service culture fuels passion. Beyond the “what”, if employees do a great job of “how” they deliver service to customers — with passion —everyone is delighted. Although intangible, customers can sense if someone deeply cares, and they always respond appropriately.

* A service culture provides uniform understanding of what “customer service” means. At every moment of truth, every touch point, customers expect a consistent level of service. With a service culture, exceptional service is the norm everywhere, never mind which department or which employee the customer engages with.

* A service culture is long-term. A big challenge for management of a growing organisation is to ensure that as new employees join it, the service values remain intact. Customers don’t care if it is a trainee or full-time employee they’re dealing with — they want the same high level of service.

In the real world, however, things change. Leadership teams change,  managers change, and employees change. A service culture is a powerful way to retain continuity and to “change-proof” your service.

* A service culture leads to a virtuous cycle of happy customers, engaged employees and profitable business. In a 2004 study by the Institute for Employment Studies in the United Kingdom, there are five behaviours demonstrated by engaged employees: belief in the organisation; desire to work to make things better; understanding of business context, the “bigger picture”; respectful and helpful to colleagues; and willingness to “go the extra mile”.

A service culture impacts these behaviours and thus results in more engaged employees. This in turn leads to improved service, better business, growth for all...and even more engaged employees.

Maintaining a culture

The first step in building and maintaining a service culture is to ensure that your service values are clearly defined and articulated.

* Discuss, brainstorm, reflect and distil the desired service values for your organisation. If you have something already, review it to be “just right”.

* Involve all key stakeholders, not just top management or any one department. Employees, partners and customers should all contribute.

You now need to communicate the service values throughout your organisation. Talk about them and “sell” them at all meetings, reviews, team gatherings and so on. Make it part of the ongoing practices in your organisation: build the service values into the rituals, celebrate heroes and leverage symbols.

Here are some examples of rituals in service cultures:

* At Wal-Mart, founder Sam Walton asked all his employees: “Whenever you come within 10 feet of a customer, greet the customer, and ask if you can help.”

* Some organisations mandate that every employee, irrespective of which department he is in, should visit the market and meet customers one day a month.

* At a mobile phone company, every new employee (at whichever level) is required to attend a workshop on customer-centricity within 180 days of joining.

Rituals can be used to enable or train people; engage stakeholders in dialogue; empower people to make the right decisions; and endorse, recognise, support success.

Service heroes

Heroes are people who demonstrate the service culture and its values. They are the role models, the exemplars and the benchmarks that others should aspire to be like. Besides setting the standards of the service culture, they make it all “come alive” in everyday human terms.

Using symbols

Symbols are all the visible artefacts of a culture — the language, objects, visuals and so on. They can be used very effectively to internally market and reinforce a service culture. Some examples used by organisations are:

* Internal marketing stuff (posters, photographs, visuals, screen savers);

* Show-and-tell materials (cheat sheets, podcasts, videos on how to deliver the service values); and

* Celebratory symbols (awards, plaques and certificates).

Building and maintaining a service culture has many rich rewards in store for you, your organisation, your employees and your customers. It is certainly not easy, but then nothing worthwhile ever is.