Customer service has many connotations. Some people associate it with restaurant or retail companies. Others associate it with someone who deals directly with a customer. Still, other people think of someone answering a phone at a call center. Though the perceptions of customer service vary, standout organizations DO make customer service a central strategy to differentiate themselves. This is true for companies ranging from WholeFoods to Google—and it is more important in the aviation industry than ever before.
Think about these questions: What will differentiate one airline or aircraft management company from another? How will an airport signal ongoing business value to its executive passengers? Should an airport vendor or retailer try to distinguish itself as the lowest priced provider, or is there something else that might draw premium customers and hence premium dollars? Customer service is a central answer to all of these questions. The one thing that one company cannot easily copy from another is the actual level of service delivery, because that is built through time and effort, and it is something that must permeate your organization. Customer service as a differentiator does not “just happen” it is part of a mission statement; it must be created at all levels of an organization.
W. Warner Burke, from ColumbiaUniversity, is an expert in organizational change. Burke’s work with a variety of organizations indicates that for a true change initiative to be successful, there are multiple levels at which this change and focus must occur: systems level, work-unit level, and individual level. Through our work at ServiceElements, we have seen many aviation-related companies struggle with how to give customer service initiatives life—how to make such initiatives stick and become part of the culture. The problem is that customer service change initiatives do not address all of these levels, often focusing on only one level at the neglect of the others.
The systems level includes mission, strategy, service culture, and leadership. Is customer service an explicit strategy that the leadership of the organization agrees upon? Does the overall culture reflect this strategy as a priority? The work-unit level includes standard operating procedures, management practices, reward systems, and strength of teamwork. The individual level includes training programs for employees, managers, and leaders, and whether the right people are in the right jobs.
If an aviation company decides that it will differentiate itself based on the service it provides and then hires a company to do a one-day workshop on customer service (individual level) without critically analyzing its system and work-unit levels, the initiative is doomed to failure. Training does no good, for example, when customer service is not a part of the company’s mission and leadership does not address work-unit level activities such as developing standard operating procedures and reward structures that reinforce the training and the mission.
Training is a natural part of any customer service initiative, but so is assessment. Leaders must be bold enough to assess their organization at all three levels. Companies must understand where they are at now, in terms of customer service, and compare that to where they want to go in the future. A comprehensive service audit is a necessity in cases such as these. If service is truly going to differentiate your company, then you must embark on a total solution. Those who address only one of Burke’s levels without addressing the others may end up doing more damage to their customer service than good.