Customer Service Focus
By Paul Martin, CPCU
SIX TIPS FOR CREATING A CUSTOMER SERVICE CULTURE
Build a positive culture by paying attention to these common-sense practices
Every organization has the potential to create a positive culture that customers and stakeholders value, but those that stand out for quality service don’t get there by accident. Those organizations understand that quality customer service is vital to their success. They invest in their service teams to build a culture of service. Although cultural growth can sometimes be prompted by luck or circumstance, the most successful insurance organizations build a positive culture by paying attention to these six common-sense practices.
- Take a lesson from Southwest Airlines: Stiffs need not apply. Insurance companies and agencies with a great customer service culture don’t let their staff become infected with personalities that kill positivity. They simply don’t let them in. In the book Nuts!, written about Southwest Airlines’ exemplary business strategy, authors Kevin and Jackie Freiberg reveal that the airline evaluates who could become a part of their team based on the candidate’s inherent attitude toward life. The airline looked for specific things: the ability to take your job seriously but not take yourself seriously, humor, humility in pilots (in addition to top piloting abilities), and whether flight attendant applicants could tell a joke. People who were overly professional and serious were not hired. This way of looking for personality qualities, like a sense of humor, in addition to needed business skills helped Southwest Airlines build an unmistakable culture that you will recognize if you’ve flown with them. They are fun but professional, friendly but safety minded, and empathetic to the less-fun parts of plane travel.
- Build diverse teams. Bringing together a customer-focused team isn’t hard, especially if you already have these types of people on board. Hiring may also become easier when current employees can interact with applicants. It’s smart to get your staff’s opinions about a potential hire, particularly when your organization agrees on what you’re looking for in a candidate. This doesn’t mean everyone has to fit a certain mold. In fact, that is something to be avoided. Workplace homogeneity can lead to groupthink and blind spots. If an insurance agency wants to build a customer service culture, it needs a diverse mix of positive, empathetic people who understand the needs and feelings of customers. Smart agencies look for people who have different perspectives so they can solve problems quickly. They want confident and humble people who want to be a part of a winning team. Quality customer service is a team effort, and the best teams are built with diverse teammates. Hiring for people with diverse personalities and backgrounds is a no-brainer. But it’s negativity and pessimism that kill a service culture, and they’re exactly what you want to avoid.
- Think of relationships as currency. Any insurance business invested in building a customer service culture recognizes that quality interactions with people are the real currency of success. They know that the most important part of building a culture of customer service is the first contact with a customer. Whether it’s electronic, over the phone, or in person, the first contact is what gets customer service efforts off to a great start. An amazing front-line staff has the empathy and the instincts needed to make a positive first impression. They are quick-thinking and provide calm and friendly direction to meet client needs. These skills are good for all team members who interact with customers. Anyone can learn to build better relationships by practicing a friendly, listening-focused conversation style in every business interaction. As team members grow these skills, they also strengthen the trust customers have in the insurance agency or company brand. If a customer can’t trust your business, its perceived value to them diminishes.
- Make problem solving an art. Insurance organizations that build a customer service culture empower their team members to solve customer issues. This empowerment can take many forms, but it almost always has the same goal: to give employees the opportunity to really make a difference for customers. Insurance agencies and companies should always lead with this spirit. Empowering team members to improve customer service can be as simple as organizing brainstorming sessions to find impactful solutions to common problems. These sessions can build trust among employees and often lead to the type of graceful accountability that’s beneficial for customers and the business alike. There are also more formalized methods of employee engagement, like process reviews and improvement plans. Implementing any one of these helps to create a more nuanced and productive customer service culture.
- Support graceful accountability. Organizations with a great customer service culture hold their team members accountable with grace and respect. Even though accountability often sends a message of punishment or of being reprimanded, finding fault doesn’t have to be its sole focus. Graceful accountability can help you create the culture of customer service that can make your insurance agency thrive. When employees in an organization feel accountable for the service they provide, they work hard for customers and their team. That effect then ripples throughout the business. Teams don’t want to let other teams down. Such a ripple effect also works from the top down. A business thrives when its leadership teams stay accountable to the departments and individual employees they lead. The best way for supervisors to create this graceful accountability within their teams is by investing in professional training and always leading with encouragement. Consider this football analogy: Football is a team sport. For the team’s offense or defense to have success, all the players must play their positions well. If the offensive line doesn’t block well, the quarterback will get sacked. If the receivers drop passes, the team’s efforts are for nothing. Accountability means that everyone is in it together and they depend on everyone else to do their best to keep customers satisfied and happy.
- Celebrate wins proudly and often. An often-overlooked trait found in companies with cultures of customer service is that they celebrate together and frequently. Culturally focused insurance organizations celebrate milestones, team successes, individual accomplishments, anniversaries, and each other’s differences. They know that they have something special and they’re proud of it. When someone delivers great service, they share the story with others. When someone overcomes a particularly hard challenge, they recognize it. When disaster strikes, they work together to overcome and are celebrated for it.
In a visit to a medium-sized town years ago, I checked into a hotel that I had visited previously under former management. The old, worldwide chain property was sold to a local owner who then rebranded it. I was greeted by a very energetic and sweet employee at reception. While I had not reserved a room on the concierge floor, she recommended it, noting that it would only be a few extra dollars for my night’s stay. I agreed and headed to my room before I realized that I had left something in my car and ran back downstairs to retrieve it. As I passed through the lobby, the desk clerked called out, “Mr. Martin, is everything in your room all right?”
I was impressed. Most people forget names within minutes of meeting new people. As the evening went on, I decided to visit the concierge lounge and was stunned. It was packed and I soon found out why. The receptionist was supplying everyone with tasty drinks and snacks in a classy, but relaxed manner. The service during the rest of my stay was similar, including the treatment from the banquet staff the next day.
If an insurance business wants to build a customer service culture, it needs a diverse mix of positive, empathetic people who understand the needs and feelings of customers.
I wondered how the management had built such a customer-oriented service culture. On a visit months later, I learned the story about when the town was hit by a hurricane. Relying on a giant generator, the small hotel staff took in hundreds of police officers, national guard troops, emergency workers, and claims adjusters. The concierge said the staff pulled together to invent new ways to keep the guests happy.
There’s more to the story, of course, but in short, they built their customer service culture under some of the worst conditions imaginable for a hotel. They depended on each other to provide quality service, and the owner was smart enough to realize that it wasn’t his leadership but the teamwork of housekeepers, cooks, and front desk staff that had changed the culture of the company overnight.
Paul Martin is director of academic content at The National Alliance for Insurance Education & Research headquartered in Austin, Texas. Paul works to develop, maintain, and deliver quality educational programs for the organization. Paul has over three decades in the insurance and risk management industry. The National Alliance provides focused education offerings for CSRs. For information, visit scic.com/programs/cisr.