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The Fundamentals work as a System

By Rob Wolff, Senior Consultant

As regular readers of this blog know, we approach workplace culture through the articulation and practice of specific behaviors (or, as we call them, Fundamentals.) Since your culture is essentially “how things are done around here”, we’ve helped over 200 organizations take a path to higher performance by helping them understand and describe the behaviors that would lead to greater levels of success – for both the organization and for individuals. We refer to our process as the Fundamentals System, in part because of the power of various fundamentals working in concert with each other.

A Tale of Two Experiences

This past week I had two vastly different customer service experiences that were a clear demonstration to me of the power of process and intentionality versus the more common business strategy of “hope.”

Early in the week I went shopping for some clothes for an upcoming vacation. Despite the fact that I can generally be found wearing clothes from Costco or something I grabbed off of the sale rack at Target, I decided to go to Nordstrom in order to check out their annual sale. I know that Nordstrom is famous for their great customer service, as I’m sure all of you are as well. Is there anyone who hasn’t heard about the customer who successfully returned car tires, when, in reality, Nordstrom doesn’t sell tires? So, going in, you expect really good service.

I wasn’t looking for a Hugo Boss suit or high-end designer clothes, I just needed some simple items for an upcoming beach vacation. I was promptly greeted by a sales associate who asked what I needed, and who then stayed appropriately attentive, while never making me feel smothered or pressured to buy anything. He just seemed to appear when needed, and was always willing to look for a different size or color. He offered to hold the items that I was considering buying, and had them waiting in a changing room when I was ready to try things on.

I hate to shop, in large part because I hate the feeling of being hounded and pressured by sales people. It normally feels uncomfortable, and I avoid it like the plague. This experience was nothing like what I’m used to. There was no pressure or awkwardness – in fact, it just felt comfortable and helpful. In every sense, this experience was the opposite of what I normally dread. This guy genuinely wanted to help me.

As a “Culture Guy”, I likely spend too much time thinking about these sorts of things, but I was so blown away by the service from a guy who couldn’t have been more than 20 years old. I sought-out a manager to compliment him, and, of course, to ask how they create such a distinctive culture of service. Not surprisingly, he said they’re very selective when they hire, that they’re extraordinarily clear about what they expect their employees to do, and that they provide constant coaching, teaching, and feedback.

My second experience of the week involved having our house painted. We had a crew of painters in the house for several days this week, painting all or part of nearly every room in the house. The crew was fast, efficient, and they were genuinely nice guys. The walls look good, and the house looks better than we hoped that it would.

Although we got what we wanted from the painters, we were also left with more work once they left. The sparing use of drop cloths meant more splattered paint to clean up, some outlet covers were never put back, and in addition to some other inconveniences, the owner of this small, local business never bothered to check on the job or ask about our satisfaction.

Good Enough, or Better?

One week with two customer service experiences that were vastly different. In both, I got exactly what I needed and paid for. However, one experience ensured that I’ll go back for more, and one insured that I’ll never go back. I’m happy to pay a premium for one level of service, and I wouldn’t use the other, even at a discount. When I look deeper to understand the driving differences behind the two situations, the power of Fundamentals working together becomes clear.

Bring it All Together

As a reminder, the Fundamentals System™, in it’s simplest terms, involves identifying behaviors (Fundamentals) which are critical for success, and then creating weekly opportunities to discuss, review, teach, and coach those behaviors (Rituals.)

As I saw at Nordstrom, it’s very clear that selecting employees who will fit well with your culture is critical (Fundamentals System Step #3). It’s also clear that you need to be very clear regarding your expectations (HPC Fundamental #12) – The new employee training program describes in great detail what the Nordstrom level of service is through the use of examples. Finally, one of the most important aspects of creating the Nordstrom experience is providing employees with constant feedback, teaching and coaching (Rituals and good coaching.)

The painters certainly knew how to paint – I got what I wanted. What was missing were the small details that would have made it a great experience. Each individual worked on his own, with no oversight, coaching or direction. Had there been coaching and reinforcement, the little, nagging details that left me dissatisfied could have been easily caught and addressed. When I discussed it with the owner, he expressed frustration that his “crews can sometimes veer off on their own.” He has no process to teach, coach and provide feedback ongoing, and worst of all, I got the very real impression that the crew saw their jobs as simply painting, when there’s so much more to the overall experience. It was clear that the owner hired painters and let them do their thing, hoping that all would go well. “Hope” is not a strategy, and it clearly doesn’t guarantee success.

Surprisingly, far too many leaders continue to rely on “hope” as a strategy. They hire good people and try to set a good example, and they hope that things stay on the same path to greater levels of success. You can and should be intentional about creating the type of culture that you want. If you’d like to learn more about how we do that, shoot us an email, give us a call, or check out David Friedman’s latest book, Culture by Design.