How to Build a Strong Customer Service Culture

Mathew Patterson | April 29, 2021

Your customer service culture is not what your fancy “Customer Guarantee” promises, and it’s not whatever you say it is in your new employee handbook.

For proof, compare this 2014 customer promise from Comcast — “We are committed to providing Comcast customers with a consistently superior customer experience” — to this recording from the same year.

Your culture is the set of beliefs held by your employees about your company: who and what it is for, what it values, and how they act in response to those beliefs.

Every company has a culture, and it isn’t something you can directly build. It develops organically in response to the decisions, behaviors, and policies of the people in the business.

Some businesses have a primarily profit-driven culture, and others have a growth-driven culture. Others are design or product led. It’s worth noting that companies with any of these primary cultures can still deliver good customer service experiences.

A customer service culture is not about the specifics of individual customer interactions. It shapes the whole attitude of the company, and over time that will lead to different decisions and different long-term outcomes.

What does a customer service culture look like?

What differentiates a typical company from one that has a strong customer service culture? The difference isn’t always obvious from the outside. A good customer service team can still skillfully help a lot of customers over long periods of time without working in a strong customer service culture.

A strong customer service culture is one where:

  • The customer service team is respected and valued.
  • Customer impact is a critical part of business decisions.
  • Everyone in the business, including those beyond the customer-facing teams, has an accurate understanding of who the customers are and what matters to them.
  • Customer service is a part of the business’s strategic vision.
  • The business agrees on a clear definition of “good customer service.”

Strategies for building a customer service culture

Gardeners work hard to create the right environment for their plants to grow in by improving the soil, removing pests, and managing light and water. Growing a company culture is similar, except that plants generally don’t get to decide how the garden is designed and can’t get up and leave when they no longer find it enjoyable.

You can’t create a company culture outright, but you can work to create an environment that encourages the sort of culture you want to see.

That culture-enabling work happens at all levels, from executives to frontline staff, and it happens every day. The words, actions, and habits you repeat and reinforce enable that customer service culture to blossom.

Strategies for company executives

Business owners and executives have the largest impact on a company’s culture through their ability to shape policy, direction, and financial investment. There are many ways an executive can encourage a strong customer service culture, including the following:

  • Hire the right people: Your people make your culture through their attitudes, behaviors, decisions, and responses. Look for people in all areas of the business who have a heart for service, and they will keep you on track. Here’s how we hire at Help Scout.
  • Remove people who aren’t working out: A leader in your business who treats people poorly or who has no interest in listening to customers will be destructive to a culture of customer service. Don’t let them drag down the rest of the organization.
  • Listen to customers: It is terribly easy to become too busy to stay connected to your customers, especially in a growing company. Look for ways to hear their voices regularly, perhaps on sales calls or in the support queue.
  • Talk about customers: Help the rest of your company be exposed to real customers, too. Bring a customer into a town hall meeting or share a customer story in your internal newsletter.
  • Make customer service part of company goals and vision: Review your company goals, objectives, and vision to ensure that your commitment to customer service is reflected in them. If it isn’t, it will quietly slip down the priority list for your team.
  • Build customer-centric focus into marketing, sales, and product functions: Every team has some impact on your customer experience, but apart from customer service itself, these three teams have the greatest influence. Their success metrics should have a clear customer focus, and their leaders should care about customer experience. Learn how Help Scout aligns sales and support.
  • Elevate your service teams: Include your customer service leadership at the highest levels, perhaps through a Chief Customer Officer-type role. Report on customer service metrics to your board. Share stories of their success.
  • Serve your employees first: If you show an attitude of service toward your staff, they are much more likely to do the same for their teams and, ultimately, your customers. The tone you set is the one they will follow.
  • Commit resources to service: No matter how much you talk about the importance of customer service or celebrate their wins, in the end, your company budget sends the strongest message. If customer service really matters, then it should be well-funded.

Strategies for customer service leaders

Customer service departments have their own cultures, and the most successful ones will seek to strengthen that culture within the team and spread it to other parts of the business. Start by understanding who you need to influence, then select the appropriate strategy.

  • Push authority to the front lines: Skilled customer service teams know how to give good service but are too often held back by inflexible policies. Give them as much authority as you can, trust them to do what is needed, and verify it through thoughtful metrics.
  • Train and support service skills: As in any profession, improvement comes from deliberate practice and training. Resources like the Help Scout Blog have great ideas to help your team hone its skills.
  • Advocate for whole team support: The more people understand what your team actually does, the more they will value it and seek to include you in their decision-making. Here’s how Help Scout implemented Whole Company Support.
  • Be the voice of the customer for your company: The customer service department knows more than anyone else about how your customers think, what they want, and where they need help. Spend time to collect, organize, and share that information so the whole company can do better at serving them.
  • Send emissaries to other departments: Get outside the team silo by finding places to connect with other teams. Can you embed a Support Product Analyst into your product team or have customer service folks join sales calls? Relationship building helps raise your team profile.
  • Define customer service quality: You can’t have a customer service culture if you don’t know what you mean by good customer service. Create a shared vision for what it means in your company, and make sure everyone knows. Week 1 of our free Foundations of Great Service course will help you create your vision.
  • Build QA processes into your customer service: While “wow moments” have their place, the real core of customer service is consistent, quality interactions. Quality assurance processes help you know how well you are doing on delivering the customer experience you are aiming for.
  • Create a safe environment for your team: In a strong culture of customer service, team members must be able to advocate for their customers even when it falls outside their normal processes and policies. Making sure it is safe to do so is your job.
  • Fight for customer-friendly policies: Don’t rely on your team going to heroic levels to deliver good service. Work to create standard policies and procedures that will deliver good results without excessive effort from the service teams. Consider areas like refunds, pricing, and privacy for ways to build an environment that respects customers.
  • Choose metrics that value service quality: If you want to encourage people to listen to customers and thoughtfully respond, rather than rush to reply and resolve, you need to measure those behaviors and report on them. Read 12 Key Customer Service Metrics + 4 Real Example Reports for some ideas.
  • Hire and grow servant leaders: Your team leads and coaches set the tone for their teams. What they value and how they act will shape the behavior of their team members, so picking the right people and developing them is crucial. The fastest or most experienced person may not always be the best choice.
  • Celebrate excellent service: Customer service is often invisible unless it goes terribly wrong. Look for opportunities to highlight great customer experiences for everyone in your company, and tie them into your stories about the business value of service. And don’t forget to celebrate the boring stories of competence!
  • Create service career paths: A company-wide culture of service will thrive if the people delivering service can continue to grow in skill and influence inside and outside the customer service department. Explore some customer service career options in our article.
  • Take a seat at the table: As a customer service leader, a big part of your role is bridging the gap between the frontline team and the people running the company. Look for opportunities to show the value of customer service, build your influence, drive your business, and earn that seat.

Strategies for customer service professionals

The customer service queue is where a culture of customer service produces the service itself. The daily actions of the customer service team reinforce the culture and deliver it outward in the form of the customer experiences they create. Here are some ways for individual team members to help encourage the right culture:

  • First, seek to listen: Curiosity is a key skill in customer service. By listening carefully and asking better questions, you will understand customers more deeply and be able to serve them better. You will also be better positioned to explain your value to the company.
  • Work for the customer’s value: Spend some time thinking about the real point of your work. Is it to hit certain time-to-resolution numbers? Or to help people quickly? Or is it to help those customers really succeed? Delivering real value is the path to long-term success in a service role.
  • Share stories internally: People in your company, even one level up, can become detached from the real people you are helping. Help strengthen their attachment by sharing stories about the lives, concerns, and successes of your customers.
  • Learn to speak the language of your business: Even when your leaders truly care about customer service, they need to balance many competing demands for resources. If you build your understanding of the numbers that your business runs on, you can make a stronger case for customer-centric improvements.
  • Be visible in your company: You may feel like you are low on the company priority list, but in every team there are people who want to better understand your work and your customers. Help those people find you and connect with you by being open about your work and interests.

Maintaining a healthy customer service culture for the long term

This article is about building a strong customer service culture, but the true challenge is to keep it once you have one. Too many companies start out with a deep customer-centric focus but lose it as they grow.

A company culture is always changing in response to the shifting priorities, customers, staff, incentives, and focus of the company that hosts it, so it requires ongoing effort and attention. Company leaders must continue to be thoughtful and deliberate about their customer focus.

The work is never done, but it is worth the effort.

Mathew Patterson

After running a support team for years, Mat joined the marketing team at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.