How to Create a Strong Customer Service Philosophy

A law in Oregon, USA, forbids you to drive around with a minor strapped on the hood of your car. Now, I'm all in favor of safe driving. But instead of setting up a specific rule for every possible risky behavior, wouldn't a few guiding principles work better?

In service, companies either try to set up rules for every situation, or they empower their employees to make the right decisions on the frontline.

If you want to belong to the latter, a well-crafted customer service philosophy is indispensable. It has the power to align an organization, eliminating the need for detailed rules on behavior.

Customer service philosophy in action

Oxford dictionary defines 'philosophy' as "a theory or attitude held by a person or organization that acts as a guiding principle for behavior."

This is especially relevant for customer service, in which frontline employees deal with an endless stream of unpredictable scenarios. You can address this uncertainty with a wide set of rules, or with a strong service philosophy.

A philosophy is more than values. Values are what flow from it. A philosophy provides a coherent story to understand where those values come from, a solid foundation to base behavior on.

In the HBR article "Customer Service Needs to Be Either More or Less Robotic", Rafe Sagarin compares two service experiences, one with Dell, the other with Apple. Both times he was experiencing a corner case issue.

With Dell, he spent a few months trying to have a new but broken laptop fixed. In the end, he was told that his return period had ended — so he couldn't get a refund. Even though Dell's slow repair service was the reason for being outside of the return period, Dell wouldn't bend.

picture of Apple, a company with a strong customer service philosophy.
Apple works with a philosophy that empowers its employees.

With Apple, Sagarin was trying to get his Mac to recognize another user’s external hard drive. The service rep noticed that he was a few weeks outside of his Apple care warranty, but instead of charging him for the service, he said:

I see that you are out of warranty here, so you might want to extend that. I’m supposed to charge you for this call, but since this is an unusual problem I think we can try to help you out this time.

Notice the difference? Some level of rules will always be necessary. But in the case of Apple, the service rep was empowered to make the right call, to break the rules to adhere to the larger vision.

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A strong service philosophy empowers your frontline employees to make the right decisions. This makes your service faster and more flexible.

How to create an inspiring customer service philosophy

Careful contemplation is the first step. The following questions will help you with that. Don't worry when you find yourself repeating; take it as a sign of internal alignment.

What is the purpose of your company?

As Graham Kenny describes in HBR, purpose is about looking at your company from the customer's perspective. This makes it a good point to start. ING's purpose, for example, is "empowering people to stay a step ahead in life and in business". Kellog's purpose, on the other hand, is “nourishing families so they can flourish and thrive”. How is your company helping your customers?

What's the role/importance of customer service within your company?

Is service your main product? Or is it to support your product? How does its role relate to your company's purpose, and its other functions?

Are you about delighting the customer, or about reducing effort?

There's a lively debate ongoing between the thought leaders in customer service about what pays off more: exceeding customer expectations — as described by Micah Solomon, or reducing customer effort — as propagated in the HBR article "Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers".

One side argues that exceeding expectations results in skyrocketing customer loyalty and virality potential. The 'effortless' side points to the high costs of this approach, combined with the fact that customers are much more likely to share their negative than about their positive experiences.

Companies achieve success with both approaches. Make up your thoughts on what camp you want to be in.

What experience should the customer have for us to fulfill this purpose?

Within the context of your business, what should your customer experience look like?

How does this translate into daily actions from your support team?

What does the consistent delivery of this ideal customer experience demand from your employees?

What are your core values?

Values are the essence that flows from your philosophy. They are, as Coca-Cola puts it, a behavioral compass. Your values could include words like "Respect", "Patience", "Transparency", etc.

What is the prioritization of your values?

Values can clash. That's why prioritization is crucial. Disney's values, for example, are Safety, Courtesy, Showmanship, and Efficiency — in that exact order. Courtesy and showmanship are crucial in a theme park, but no one cares about the Fantasy Parade when little Johnny tumbles out of the roller coaster.

What are the principles that should guide your employees on the frontline?

These are filtered from your values. One principle behind 'transparency' could be: "Always explain the reason behind our regulations". One about dealing with angry customers could be: "Calm down the customer through questioning."

What are mantras that allow frontline employees to easily remember these principles?

You can have a beautiful manual, but your frontend employees won't have time to read through it for every issue. They must think on their feet. That's where catchy mantras prove themselves handy.

In our previous post on customer service techniques we covered mantras used by the service departments of companies like Apple and Disney. These include the "Feel, Felt, Found" (empathize, explain own experience, and how you solved it), "HEARD" (Hear, Empathize, Apologize, Resolve, Diagnose), and "ELI5" (explain it like I'm 5 years old).

Such abbreviations easily stick with your employees, raising the odds that they're followed.

Integrate them into a one-pager

There's no fixed format to a customer service philosophy. But having it down on paper — preferably a digestible one-pager — will allow your service reps to reread and internalize it. Take your answers from above and integrate them into a coherent piece.

Preventing empty words

The above step is where most companies stop. Maybe a manager will mention the manifest in a meeting, urging everyone to internalize it, after which it turns into a dead document.

book cover of Creativity Inc

In Creativity Inc, Pixar President Edwin Catmull explains that actions are what distinguishes strong philosophies from managerial blabla.

Setting up a document about your philosophy and values is easy. But company cultures don't exist on paper; they exist in the way people interact with each other.

You want your philosophy to influence the behavior of your employees. To do so, it needs to be felt in all areas of your employee experience — not just in the monthly recap.

Here are some ideas to put things in practice.

  • Hiring. This is the first touch point for future employees, and the easiest time to filter out bad matches, influence behavior, and manage expectations. Clearly communicate your philosophy, and test applicants on whether they'd fit in.
  • Training. Training programs give your employees sight on the direction you want them to develop, as well as the tools for getting there. You can train with customer service scenarios, for example, and give feedback based on whether their execution is in line with the philosophy or not.
  • Reviewing. Set up your reviews in accordance to your philosophy. When a chat transcript of one of your service reps shows a lack in your desired value of transparency, for example, you can point it out and explain how she can improve for the next interaction.
  • Incentivizing. Praising an employee, raising her salary, promoting her, etc., should be based on whether she's in line with your philosophy. Give the right incentives for the right behavior.
  • Firing. That's the other side of the coin. When a service rep is not living up to your vision and is unwilling or unable to change, you must let her go. That's the only way you can offer a consistent customer experience.
  • Automated repeating. You want your employees to internalize your philosophy, which takes repetition. But you don't want to sound like a repetitive idiot yourself. Automated reminders can do the dirty work for you. If you're using Slack for internal communication, you'll be familiar with its opening quotes. What you might not know, is that you can replace these quotes with custom messages. Similarly, you can set up Slackbot to send out custom reminders on a steady basis.
screenshot of one of Slack's opening quotes.
You can add your customer service mantras as an opening Slack quote.

Philosophy Examples

It helps to look at the leaders in the industry for inspiration.

Disney. Probably the most famous brand known for its customer service. The company even has an institute dedicated to customer service, where other companies send their service professionals to be trained in their secrets. Check out our post and Disney's book Be Our Guest.

picture of Mickey Mouse on a piano.
Disney, the world's leader in service.

Apple. The philosophy behind Apple's customer service is based on understanding all of the customers’ needs — some of which they may not even realize they have. Check out our post and Apple's leaked training manual.

Virgin. With all the businesses that carry the Virgin name, it seems impossible to pinpoint the industry it's operating in. Not true, says Richard Branson. Virgin's industry is customer service. This comes back in the official brand values: "Fun, value for money, quality, innovation, competitive challenge, brilliant customer service." Check out the article "Seven Customer Service Lessons I Learned In One Day With Richard Branson".

a picture of a Virgin air balloon.
Its customer service philosophy lifts Virgin to a higher level.

Zappos. Starting out as 'just a shoe store', Zappos grew into an eCommerce giant through its ambition of delivering the best customer experience. Its philosophy is based on addressing its employees' intrinsic motivations; on top-down commitment; and on collective, authentic, and actionable core values. Read more in this HBR article "Four Lessons on Culture and Customer Service from Zappos’ CEO, Tony Hsieh".

“Hopefully ten years from now, people won’t even realize that we started out selling shoes online,”

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos

FISH! What used to be just a regular fish stand in Seattle, became through a critical pivot a business that was all about fun. FISH! became world famous. Its philosophy is based on the principles of play, making their day, being there, and choosing your attitude.


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