Article: Ron Kaufman on HR's role in creating service culture


Ron Kaufman on HR's role in creating service culture

Ron Kaufman, Founder, UP! Your Service, on the importance of service, its correlation with employee turnover, building a sustainable service culture and HRs role in cultivating it. Excerpts from the conversation
Ron Kaufman on HR's role in creating service culture

If you want a revolution, then you have to go big and go fast. Dont pilot a change, because then people know that you are hedging your back


To bring service excellence, do not start with the frontline employees; start with the employees that serve them.



Ron Kaufman is a prominent service culture expert, an author, a management consultant and a keynote speaker. As the founder of UP! Your service, a global service education and management consultancy firm, Ron provides insights on building a culture that enables employees to provide uplifting services to their customers that generates business results and enables organizations to achieve sustainable advantage. Kaufman is also the author of the New York Times bestseller Uplifting Service and writes regularly for Bloomberg Businessweek. 

You have extensively worked towards uplifting and transforming service culture of organizations. But how do you really define the term ‘service’? How can organizations engrain service into their culture?

‘Service’ means taking action to create value for someone else. And it can be a huge business differentiator. Take the example of the manufacturing industry where most products are commoditized. In that scenario, what really gives company the edge? It is the experience the customer or client has while engaging with the company in terms of the design and specification of the product, and how the product’s delivery is staged. All such are actions to create more value, and all of that is counted as service.

When people join an organization, they are expected to know how to do service, despite the fact that there is hardly any curriculum followed in schools, which gives space to the subject of service. The foundation to build that culture of service is to educate people about it first. Then take up the task of making the environment enabling to sustain that learning. To achieve that, I created this architecture for service. Consider the workplace as a home –service education here becomes the foundation of the house, the leadership behavior is the roof, and in between the roof and the foundation, there is a combination of bricks, cement, pipes, wires, glass, tiles, woods, etc. which I call building blocks of service.

You gave an interesting analogy of architecting service culture comparing it with the architecture of a house. What are these building blocks of service?

The building blocks create the environment which sustains that learning. The 12 building blocks of service culture happen to be – Establishing a ‘Common service language’; having an independent, motivating and ‘engaging service vision’; ‘Hiring’ talent that reinforces the service culture; giving a great experience at the ‘new staff orientation’; frequent use of ‘service communication’ which motivates people to uplift their service; ‘recognition and rewards’ for giving great service; pay heed to the ‘voice of the customer’, which implies qualitative comments and not only the feedback ratings; ‘service measures and metrics’; ‘service improvement process’; ‘service recovery and guarantees’; ‘service benchmarking’ against the world’s practices; and ‘service role modeling’.

But the house cannot be built in a snap of a finger, it is engineered overtime. To engineer it, the first step is knowing the business problem and prioritizing which building block to focus on first in the given business context. People are then educated about service, which is followed up by developing the building block. The final step is to embed it in the company process itself.

How can organizations build this home successfully and create a service revolution?

There are some rules that actually help in bringing a service revolution. The first rule is – do not start with frontline employees. The common perception and practice, while approaching service, is to start with educating frontline employees because they are customer-facing. But an organization must start with people that serve them. Because if the customer-facing employees are not getting better service from the company, be it from finance, HR, admin, or security, then they are unlikely to give the customers a great service.

Also, do not teach people the standards, scripts and procedures – educate them about service excellence and explain its application. What does it mean to take action to create value for someone else? That’s service. What does it mean to take that next step up to create more value for somebody else? That’s service excellence.

If you want a revolution, then you have to go big and go fast. Don’t pilot a change, because then people know that you are hedging your back. And to judge, if the change is working, focus on leading indicators, such as, “the number of new ideas generated” or “the number of ideas put into action.”

You have also highlighted that the impact of a weak service culture is not only on the topline or bottom-line, but also on some key HR aspects like employee turnover. Recently, in your blog you mentioned that a weak service culture negatively affects employee retention. What is the correlation between the two?

It is important to ask what really gives people the sense that they have a meaningful life. The old ‘Wall Street greed’ version of a meaningful life is ‘how big is your red car’ or ‘how much money you have in your bank account’. But that is not really relevant anymore. Greater meaning comes from how you are with people and how you create value for others – be it your customers, colleagues or team. And this is essentially what service is all about. So if the workplace environment makes you feel that you are contributing to the well-being of others, then you are more likely to stay in the organization.

What is the role of HR in cultivating that service culture in the organization? What can HR do to bring about that transformation?

The HR department plays a key role in creating an enabling environment for a service culture. Many building blocks of service culture are core to the HR function – for example service staff recruitment, recognizing and rewarding service excellence and new staff orientation. But some components are a collective responsibility, and are not really owned by a particular department. It is a cultural thing. However, having said that, the HR function is the vanguard of creating that culture. 

HR creates value for others – it is one function that serves multiple stakeholders, be it the talent of the organization, the various departments of the organization or the organization as a whole. HR’s job is not limited to be a provider of value but also helps everyone to create that value. Given the heavy involvement of CEOs in strategy, it is upto the HR to carry the torch of value-creation. And for HR to actually uplift its service for its customers, it should apply the principles to elevate itself. It can start by understanding the needs, concerns, aspirations, goals and priorities of its customers. Only then can the actions be contextualized to the needs of the people and real value can be created.

You have worked with NIIT Technologies in India to uplift their service culture. How did you apply this architecture and what were the results the company derived from that transformation?

The entire Indian IT industry evolved out of cost arbitrage as a value proposition; and speed, reliability and cost became the criteria for competition in the industry. But NIIT saw the changing customer expectations and the availability of other cost viable options in Philippines and Bangladesh, as a future business problem. Also, as companies get bigger in scale and operations, organizational culture gets threatened and becomes a tick the box. This opens the window for nimble competitors to come in and be more creative and offer more value. NIIT realized the clear need for its people to go beyond their checklists and innovate. It created its service vision, “New ideas to create more value”. 

We started with service education and then the company launched the program called ‘IGNITE’, which is a program for generating ideas. In the next cycle, people were asked for ideas which were specifically customer-facing and would increase the value created for customers. At each stage along the way, they would review the ideas and created a platform where people could upvote or downvote the ideas and give suggestions. As the final step, the idea evaluation board would choose some of the ideas, fund them and then implement them in the organization. 

IGNITE connected to a recognition program called ‘INSPIRE’ where they would reward people for generating ideas which actually delivered value and that’s how they embedded this concept into their culture. And if we are to look at the leading indicators, the number of customer-facing ideas has increased from 44 percent to 99 percent. The ideas selected for implementation has also increased from 21 percent to more than 60 percent. And in the past three years, the stock price of NIIT Technologies has gone up by 100 percent. 

We realize you were involved with the Singapore government and helped the nation build a service culture. How were you approached and how did you bring about that nation-wide transformation?

It was one of those cases of how life unfolds for all of us – you think you are going somewhere, then something happens and you end up going somewhere else.

The Singapore economy was experiencing a real structural shift in 1990s. The manufacturing industry was moving to China and the back-office data processing was moving to India. All this was slated to leave Singapore as a little country with no economy. So the government decided to fund the development of an initiative that would raise service levels through service education throughout the country.

I was in Salt Lake City, Utah, skiing, when I got invited to Singapore for doing something around service. The leaders in Singapore called me in to transform a low-cost manufacturing hub to an economy identified by superior service, an initiative in partnership with Singapore Airlines. I was invited to create and launch a national service quality training organization.

They were trying to build a curriculum on service and had tried major consulting firms to build it, but they all fell short. So, I was called as a result and before I went, I invented a couple of games for them that enabled a person to think about what the other person needed – in line with what service actually is. I sent the games by fax and was called there to build something like a boot camp – a service boot camp, which I eventually created. We converted some British military barracks, leftover from the colonization era, into residential training facilities. The people lived there for a few days and nights and did everything together, be it cooking or cleaning – everything while we were teaching service principles.

I first went there for a week, then was asked to stay a month, and I am still a part of that journey – it is still ongoing. 

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Topics: Culture, Leadership

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