Leading a Culture of Service

by Christine McHugh November 29, 2015
November 29, 2015

My experience in customer service started in middle school, working for my grandparents at their retail gift shop. Subsequently, a stint as a restaurant hostess and then a receptionist at a hair salon led me to managing a chain of espresso carts in Seattle where I enjoyed making coffee and talking with customers.


When I began to look for another job that provided health insurance, Starbucks was suggested given their reputation as an employer and my background in coffee. I was hired as a barista 26 years ago when we had just 36 stores.


As a new Starbucks partner (employee), I went through extensive training on product quality, preparation and, of course, customer service. When I was promoted into management, I received additional training on what it meant to be a customer service leader. We had mantras like “if you’re not helping a customer, help someone who is”.


Fast forward to present day – I‘m now responsible for customer service at one of the most admired companies in the world. And while we are often noted for great service, we do not consistently make decisions that protect and enhance the connections our baristas make with customers.


I’ve come to realize that creating a culture of service and leading a culture of service requires a constant focus, organizationally and behaviorally. Organizationally, every decision needs to be scrutinized as to whether or not it elevates the customer experience. This requires a tremendous amount of cross-functional effort and influencing but also prioritization to focus on what matters most.


Behaviorally, employees must have clear expectations about what service looks like, accountability to those expectations, and celebration when those expectations are achieved. For an organization and/or leader to really instill a culture of service, four practices need to be in place:



  1. Hiring for a service mentality
  2. Training and setting expectations for service
  3. Creating an environment of service
  4. Growing your business by looking at ways to analyze and improve your service

These four things are not rocket science and they are probably on the priority lists of many organizations but instilling them in the culture is the real challenge.


Hiring for Service


Do you only hire people who can connect in a genuine way? How do you assess that? Do they look at things from the customer’s perspective? This should be the first filter in assessing talent, not experience, not availability, not references. If you don’t feel that a prospective employee can connect with customers, has a desire to understand customers or has a true genuine desire to serve others, then don’t hire them.


Training and Setting Expectations


Does your training plan focus specifically on customer service? This is so critical because initial training signals what’s important and what’s expected. Ongoing training investments reinforce concepts and develop new skills. As a leader, you also need to show that you care about customers by demonstrating how to connect with them and telling your customer stories often. By modeling service, you are showing what’s expected.


Creating the Environment


People want to work in a fun supportive environment, with each other and with customers. How do you recognize and celebrate customer service behaviors? Do your customers get involved in recognizing and celebrating your employees for great service? Conversely, when service does not meet expectations, is swift coaching and action taken?


Analyzing and Improving


You probably have a lot of data available to measure the customer experience such as surveys, sales reports and research. This is valuable information but should not be taken on its own. Analyzing and improving service also requires talking with customers and observing interactions between employees and customers. Being solely reliant on data and metrics is a limiting perspective of the customer’s experience.


Leading a culture of service means alignment across the organization that customers and their experiences are the imperative. Having the supporting systems, tools and expectations reinforce that alignment helps everyone understand what matters most –customers.

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