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Service Excellence As A Focus For Organisational Change

Written by Chris Daffy

A customer recently sent me a testimonial regarding some work I’d been doing with his organisation. The last sentence said:

This is not mere training; if you fully embrace it, this is business transformation!

This got me thinking back over the past few major projects I’d worked on with other organisations, and I realised he was absolutely right.  In most cases, although the project focus had been the delivery of Service Excellence, usually through learning about and then implementing the techniques of Customer Experience Management, the outcome had been a transformation in how the organisation operated and in the results it achieved.  I therefore thought it would be worth writing about what I’ve learned; so here goes...

New Thinking

Customers have changed. What used to impress them no longer does; what used to pass unnoticed is now looked for; and what used to be acceptable or bearable now causes dissatisfaction and/or complaint.  So, if customers have changed, the service techniques and processes we use to build customer loyalty must change too.  What used to work in the past will not work in the same way anymore. It may still be necessary, but it will no longer be sufficient to create the same customer loyalty it perhaps did in the past.

So, new thinking is needed to create new ways of delivering customer service.  The best way to address this is obviously to substantially change and/or improve the style or quality of service being delivered.  But here there is often a misunderstanding about what will produce the required result.  A few short training courses for existing front-line people, to make them a bit more polite or attentive, or smile more often, is unlikely to have any worthwhile lasting effect.

An analogy can be drawn with raising the bar a notch or two in a high jump event. You may be able to jump the bar at the new height and it may be higher than your competitors are currently jumping, but if it is just a few notches up it’s not going to be seen as very different by observers (in many cases, it’s not even noticed) and competitors will soon be jumping the same height or higher. Therefore, any competitive advantage you may gain is likely to be short-lived.

To make a worthwhile difference, one that will put you ahead of the competition in ways they will find difficult or perhaps even impossible to follow, something much more dramatic and impactful is needed.  Sticking with the ‘jumping’ analogy, what is needed is to change the event.  The high jump needs to be abandoned and training started to become skilled in the pole vault.  That is something that will certainly be noticed by customers and, if you do it well, it will leave your competitors stranded in the high jump event and demoralised by the obvious new heights you are achieving.

In this respect, the customer service arena is similar to the sporting arena.  For success in today’s highly competitive markets, what is need is a switch in focus from customer service to customer experience and how to manage it.  If you do this, there will be techniques and skills that made you good at customer service that will also help you at customer experience management. But simply getting better at those will be insufficient for success; you’ll also need to learn many new techniques and skills – and some of the old ones will have to be scrapped to make room for the new ones.

This will probably be uncomfortable for a while. It may even adversely affect some things during the transition.  (Tiger Woods has changed his golf swing many times during his career. Each time it spoiled his game for a while until he became comfortable and better with the new swing.)  Repeating the same actions will usually create the same results, so it’s essential to do different things – even if it hurts for a while – to dramatically change and improve the results.

Sustainable Change

There are a few key elements that have a major impact on the overall success and long-term sustainability of this type of change programme. These are outlined in more detail below:

Positive Focus
There’s an old phrase that says: ‘If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there’. Also, in Dr Stephen Covey’s book ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, he explains that one of the key habits is to always ‘Begin with the end in mind’. Both these thoughts should be considered when planning and implementing organisational change.  It’s vitally important to create a positive future outcome to focus, unite and motivate everyone throughout the organisation.

A focus on what is often called ‘Burning Bridges’ is regularly used to trigger change.  It has helped many organisations change behaviours to avert imminent or possible disaster.  It can work very well, but only at what it is designed for; that is creating rapid movement away from a negative situation and urgent action to fix what is causing it.

But it is a focus on what is not wanted rather than on what is required, so it is not as effective at creating the positive actions necessary to replace what is awful or bad with what would be good or great.  That’s because removing a negative does not create a positive; when you stop being bad, you don’t become good – you just become not bad.

What’s needed to help people understand and focus on good or great service delivery is a clear, positive view of what is actually wanted. I often call such things ‘Blazing Beacons’.  They are things in the foreseeable distance that attract people to the better future they promise.  Service Excellence works really well as an excellent Blazing Beacon.  Most people in most organisations will understand the good sense of focusing on customer service improvement. It is also something that usually makes those who helped create it proud to know they played their part.

Leadership Commitment
For success, leaders must obviously be committed to the project.  But that in itself is not enough; they must also be seen to be committed.  Leaders’ actions and behaviours always tell their colleagues more about what matters to them than words or gestures.  It is therefore important for leaders to be prepared to ‘lead from the front’ and begin by investing their own time to learn about the subject.  They then need to keep investing their time and effort in the ongoing implementation project(s) so that they are seen by all to be fully supportive of what everyone else is doing.

To quote Professor John Kotter of Harvard Business School, “Having set the direction, and aligned everyone behind it, leaders must continue to motivate and inspire people to sustain their efforts to achieve the goals”.

This essential motivation and inspiration does not result from e-mails and newsletters; it only comes from people seeing and hearing their leaders, on the ‘front line’, encouraging and supporting all the right efforts and initiatives.

Inside-Out Approach
It is not possible to create a worthwhile difference with merely a thin veneer of great service on the external surface of your organisation, especially if the internal service is poor.  Imagine a veneer of wood on a poor or rotten base wood; surface scratches soon expose the poor wood below and, in time, the rot breaks through the veneer.  In the same way, to create a lasting, worthwhile difference through service you must start with the systems, processes, structure, people and culture inside the organisation, make whatever changes or improvements are necessary to create internal service excellence, and then gradually work it out to customers via all the touch points.

Put simply, what’s on the inside always shows on the outside. So although it takes longer to adopt in inside-out approach, it’s the only way to make a worthwhile, sustainable, value-adding difference.

The best way to do this is to utilise some well-tested and proven techniques, used by manufacturers to implement such things as Six Sigma or Systems Thinking (Lean). They know that to embed new thinking in an organisation there needs to be a clear focus, leadership commitment and support, and a sufficient mass of skilled people, throughout the organisation, who fully understand what is needed, know how to do it, and can encourage and support their colleagues during the implementation.

Academic research and practical experience indicate that, for success, this should be 10% to 20% of the workforce; sufficient numbers to be close enough to touch and inspire everyone else. Once trained, these people can then act virally and ‘infect’ their colleagues with enthusiasm for, and skills in, the new techniques.

Outside-In Feedback
It’s very hard to improve customer service if you don’t have a crystal clear, up-to-date understanding of what customers think of the existing service you provide and any improvements you make. To do this successfully, there are two essential types of feedback that need to be generated.

The first should be done at regular intervals. It is general market studies to gather overall views of the current service, how it matches up against customers’ expectations and competitors’ offerings, and what could be done to improve it.

The second should be done continually.  This is event-driven (ideally real-time) feedback that provides ongoing information about what customers think about their experiences at all touch points with the organisation.
Together these make it possible for leadership to set the key service goals and the general direction for service improvements, and then for everyone throughout the organisation to have the ‘voice of the customer’ ringing in their ears as they work towards achieving the goals.

Step by Step Implementation
Successful organisational change happens person by person, team by team, branch by branch, process by process, project by project.  If this is understood, leaders can then devise and implement a systematic, step-by-step approach to get everyone involved and playing their part in the change process.

Ideally, constant change (for the better) will become embedded in the standard working practices (the DNA) of the organisation.  When this is done, each step forward creates a new position and, with it, a new perspective; which should, in turn, make clear what the next step(s) should be and thus a continuous improvement environment is created.

Change that happens slowly doesn’t feel like change. Customers rarely notice it and competitors can easily keep up with it.  So to make a worthwhile and impactful difference, the change must take place at a fast pace.

This means that the leaders must be impatient and inject a sense of urgency into the programme. To quote from Allan Leighton’s book on Leadership, “Urgency is Energy”, so if you want the programme to have energy, you must implement with urgency.


So there you have it – a few thoughts on how to make service make a worthwhile difference.  And, to re-quote my customer, if you fully embrace it, this can successfully be used to drive worthwhile business transformation!

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