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Customer Service

Building a Culture of Service


I often hear people say, “You can’t really teach someone how be a great service provider; people are either born that way or they’re not.”   Which makes me smile and shake my head. I certainly know that service didn’t come naturally to me—and in fact I cringe when I think about how badly I approached my first real customer service job as a waitress back in the early ‘70s. And yet I am regularly complimented on how I, and the people I work with, provide service today. So I guess you could say I’m a poster child for how service training CAN work.

In Zingerman’s Guide to Giving Great Service, Zingerman’s CEO, Ari Weinzweig, writes about the 5-90-5 Rule. That “rule” states that about 5% of people are “born service providers.” They’re the sort of employees who manage to brighten your day even if they’ve never been trained on service and regardless of whether or not anyone else in their organization makes service a priority.  Then there are the 5% at the other end of the spectrum. They’re the ones who—for whatever reason—just can’t or won’t give great service regardless of how much training they receive. The majority of us fall in the middle of these two extremes.  About 90% of people are willing to give good service if they a) know what it is and b) have the opportunity to learn the skills needed to deliver it.

When I took my first waitressing job in Chicago (fresh out of college with my degree in German Literature!), I was asked if I’d waited tables before (I said yes because I was afraid I wouldn’t be hired if I admitted to having no experience) and whether I could start on Friday (yes, again).  I was given a menu to take home so that I could study it, and when I reported to work on that first Friday I was shown how to write up my order tickets, where to post them and where to pick up the food when it was ready.  Not a word about what the expectations were with regard to the guest’s experience.

Now, I wasn’t stupid and I knew how to be polite, so I had a clue how to interact with my customers—most of whom were office workers with limited time for lunch. They wanted their lunch quickly, they wanted to get what they ordered, and I did my best to take care of them.  Often, things went well and I was a competent—if never exceptional—server.

The challenges arose when things didn’t go smoothly. I had absolutely no advice to draw on when a customer became demanding. I had no problem apologizing when I’d made a mistake, but sometimes guests were just downright rude and I felt personally insulted.  My reaction was just to grit my teeth, interact with them as little as possible and muscle my way through until they left. I don’t think the idea of trying to turn things around ever entered my mind.  I knew I was sacrificing any hope of a decent tip, but I figured that was my choice.  I wasn’t going to “kiss up” to obnoxious people. Although I am embarrassed to admit it now, I’m pretty sure that the fact that my behavior could have an impact on the business itself never occurred to me.

I share this insight into my 20-something soul only because I so often hear that the reason it’s hard to hire good service providers is because there’s something lacking in kids today.  I would argue that young people are just as self-absorbed as we all were at that age and that instead of throwing up our hands in disgust, we need to provide training and clear expectations on what it means to give great service—along with tools to help in tough situations.  And I would also argue that it is not just employees in their twenties who don’t understand the connection between their performance as service providers and the overall health of the business—unless we take the time to teach them.

At Zingerman’s we’ve identified 5 areas that are critical in building and maintaining a strong culture of customer service.

Teach it

We believe that giving great service is a skill that can be taught and learned. Like all skills, it takes practice to improve and some people catch on more quickly than others.  The training needs to explain how the interests of the individual employee and the organization as a whole are intertwined and can benefit from a focus on service improvement.

Define it

If you’re going to teach about service, it’s best to start by defining the behavior you want to see. What does great service look like when it’s happening? Are guests being greeted as soon as they walk in the door?  Is it important that they be greeted by name?  How do you want staff to handle complaints?  These service “recipes” are tools that staff can use to measure themselves against.

Live it

A service culture cannot truly thrive unless management leads the way by not only modeling exceptional service to customers, but also providing great service to staff and to each other.  Our experience at Zingerman’s is that the service the staff gives to our customers will never be better than the service that we, as leaders, give to our staff.  Just as the service that they give to customers will never be better than the service we, as leaders, give to customers.  Essentially, we set the bar, and if we want to raise the organization’s service level, we need to start by looking inward and figuring out how WE can raise the level of service we are personally delivering.

Measure it

Measurement allows you to figure out where you are and whether you’re on track towards where you want to be.  Zingerman’s uses an organization-wide service measure called ZXi (Zingerman’s Experience Indicator) that’s based on the NPS (Net Promoter Score) as introduced in Fred Reichhelds’s book, The Ultimate Question, which I highly recommend.

Reward it

How does your organization recognize the best service providers?  All too often, they just “get” to work harder, as others step back from the tough customer interactions because “Kari does such a great job, I’ll just let her take care of it.” Rewards and/or bonuses that recognize individual performance are important, but so are group rewards that incent departments or teams to work together.  Perhaps most importantly, in a strong service culture, being a great service provider becomes a prerequisite for advancement in the organization.

Now that I’ve spent almost 30 years years living, breathing and teaching customer service, I wish I could time travel back to help my younger self handle those waitressing challenges with more finesse.  Not only would my job have been less stressful, I would have earned more money, made more money for my employer and provided a much better experience for our customers.  But although I can’t go back, I do have the opportunity to help others learn the tools and techniques to be successful service providers—and that is a very satisfying service experience in and of itself!


*** This piece was originally published in Gourmet Retailer.

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