“What matters is on the inside.”
My young daughter said this aloud as I was fretting about what to wear for a recent public speaking event. Her off-the-cuff encouragement reminded me what my talk was about but also led me to recall a dynamic I often see play out within organizations. In marketing and creating their culture, companies focus on the outside and neglect less tangible but more impactful assets.
High-gloss, highly-marketable Twitter images showing ubiquitous nap and coffee stations and swoopy modern desks or “Great(est) Places to Work” competitions boasting free dry cleaning and Friday keg parties are good click bait but miss the issue at hand: strong company culture.
Healthy cultures, like a fish’s water, buffet every part of every organization. It influences how employees act towards each other, how leaders manage, and the customer experience. Culture can make employees think “I love it here; I feel seen and engaged” or “I can’t stand my job; I want to look at other options!” The same goes for customers; customer’s experience culture as brand, and a strong or weak culture can attract maintain or discourage and reject customer buy-in.
Here are a few examples, followed by an interpretation based on my experience building strong company culture:
1. During recent travel, an error was made in my flight itinerary. I was told to get off the plane (last flight of the day) and walk back inside to the desk where they would remedy the situation. When I got to the desk, I was told the plane I’d just been on had left and that I would have to travel home the next day. The representative who was trying to help me quickly noticed my agitation and made a call to the plane. She swiftly grabbed by paperwork, spoke privately to a colleague, and walked me back to the plane. In 10 minutes I went from feeling annoyed to devastated and angry to feeling supported, seen, and cared for by the airline. Ellen appeared to feel empowered by the assistance she gave me. She did not hesitate to seek approval from a higher authority and she clearly valued my happiness. I flew home thinking about what kind of training or management Ellen had received to create such an authentic and heartfelt experience for me as the customer.
2. Years ago, I applied for a line of credit for my business. The first bank I approached was a large chain where we had all six of our family accounts. I was told I needed my husband’s co-sign for a business line of credit despite the fact that he was uninvolved in the business. I declined on principal and walked down the street to a then-new local bank. The manager invited me to a small room, and asked how he could help. I told him my story, and he listened, making notes. I walked out with my first robust line of credit and a new business bank, feeling supported, valued, and appreciated. The manager was clearly motivated to meet my needs. He believed he had a solution, and he knew how to access it. He was empowered, had clear authority, understood how to get something done quickly, and used empathy to understand what I needed as a future (and now very loyal) customer.
3. A client of mine recently suffered a small car accident on her way to work. She was on her way to an important meeting and called her boss to say she was delayed as her car needed to be towed. Her boss immediately expressed concern for her welfare—Was she hurt? Did she need help? —and then provided reassurance that the meeting would be covered by her colleagues. Because of their team approach, my client was not the only person “in the know” and the meeting went off flawlessly. This story shows that collaboration, information sharing, and empathy was not only a company value but a company practice, performed in day-to-day interactions such that, when an emergency arose, it happened as habit.
I do not believe that these interactions would have been materially changed if the employees involved had stand-up desks or received free movie passes or could nap and drink coffee anywhere in their office. These employees acted the way they did because they had been train, encouraged, and indoctrinated into a culture that manifested it’s values: customer focus, accountability, team orientation, problem-solving, and others. Somewhere, somehow, a core belief of the organizations had been identified and responded to with training and/or management practices.
Rather than focusing on spending time and resources on surface elements of company culture, organizations would benefit from investing in people practices that drive behavior. Usually this means spending time and money on training, communication, management, and leadership development. Instilling confidence and belief in the core values of an organization, and helping people connect the dots between these values and the things they do every day is what drives strong company culture.