What is the difference between a poorly run organization with a dysfunctional culture and a well-run organization with a culture that delivers superior customer service? The latter doesn’t make its problems into your problem. The former believes its problems are a sufficient explanation for its failure to deliver on its promises. In coming years there will be many dramatic corporate bankruptcies among companies whose culture has the former mindset.
Consider Dell. I’ve been a loyal Dell customer for many years. Any time I’ve tried another brand of computer, I have come to regret it. The centerpiece of my children’s Christmas gift was to be a new computer. I placed the order on December 2nd with Dell promising that they would ship the computer before Christmas. I’ve always found that Dell computers have arrived earlier than their promised delivery date and that Dell frequently provided a complementary shipping upgrade. On December 21st , I received a form e-mail from Dell: “We wanted to let you know that there is a delay with one or more items in your order… Based on the latest available information, we have adjusted the Estimated Delivery Date and are confident your order will be delivered on or before 01/12/2011.”
Of course, many computers ordered in December are intended as gifts or they are ordered for tax purposes, making an end-of-the-year delay more than a little bit inconvenient. This past summer the New York Times reported on documents that help to explain the decline of Dell.
After the math department at the University of Texas noticed some of its Dell computers failing, Dell examined the machines. The company came up with an unusual reason for the computers’ demise: the school had overtaxed the machines by making them perform difficult math calculations.
Dell, however, had actually sent the university, in Austin, desktop PCs riddled with faulty electrical components that were leaking chemicals and causing the malfunctions. Dell sold millions of these computers from 2003 to 2005 to major companies like Wal-Mart and Wells Fargo, institutions like the Mayo Clinic and small businesses.
The Times article goes on:
But Dell employees went out of their way to conceal these problems. In one e-mail exchange between Dell customer support employees concerning computers at the Simpson Thacher & Bartlett law firm, a Dell worker states, “We need to avoid all language indicating the boards were bad or had ‘issues’ per our discussion this morning.”
In other documents about how to handle questions around the faulty OptiPlex systems, Dell salespeople were told, “Don’t bring this to customer’s attention proactively” and “Emphasize uncertainty.”
The Times also reported that Dell’s “capacitor problems could cause computers to catch fire.” Should I be surprised then that Dell sent a computer-generated form letter not caring that they would not meet their obligations to me? Of course not. Should Dell be surprised if the company continues on its downward trajectory? Of course not.
Kevin Rollins was Dell’s CEO during the years of the scandals. In 2003, Rollins received feedback from Dell employees that he was “autocratic and antagonistic” and that half of Dell’s employees would quit if they had the chance. In his book The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey reports that Rollins “got a Curious George doll to help to remind him to listen to others before making decisions.”
Now I would never disparage the efforts of individuals to improve, but one has to wonder how someone who needs a doll to be reminded to listen to others could’ve ever been appointed CEO of any company that really cared about listening to customers. And of course, changing the culture of an organization is much more challenging than changing the attitude of one individual.
There are companies who get the point that, if they are to succeed, the idea of customer service must be imbued at all levels of the company. In my book The Inner-Work of Leadership I tell the following story which took place around ten years ago:
Of all the positive customer service experiences I have ever had, this one wins first prize. For a winter holiday, I ordered snowshoes to be shipped to New Hampshire. On the evening of December 23rd we got a telephone call in New Hampshire from our neighbor in Baltimore; four big boxes were sitting on our front porch. Realizing that our snowshoes had been shipped to Baltimore, my wife called the company immediately. The first person who answered the phone saw instantly that the company had made the error; she said she would call back shortly. Within a half-hour she did call back. Already she had arranged for FedEx to return to our house that evening (it was already 8 p.m.), retrieve the boxes, and get them up to New Hampshire by the next morning. And that is exactly what happened. The company was L.L. Bean.
Notice how the front line telephone clerk had authority to take an action that would entail a considerable expense for the company. Her authority to act was grounded in a culture of customer service that is more than a hundred years old—a culture that most organizations lack. In most organizations, the culture is set by the current leadership; at L.L. Bean, their culture originated with their founder.
Leon Leonwood Bean founded his company in 1911. In the beginning, Bean sold one product—the Maine Hunting Shoe—and guaranteed “perfect satisfaction in every way.” Of the first 100 pairs he sold, ninety fell apart and were returned under his guarantee. Bean was at an early crossroad; his fledgling company was in danger of failing if he honored his guarantee. Bean may have been tempted by his ego to abandon the guarantee—it would have been easy to blame the circumstances under which hunters used their boots. Bean took the high road; he borrowed more money and honored his guarantee.
Many major corporations will fail in coming years, perhaps Dell among them. There is little doubt in my mind that L.L. Bean will still be around. Why? They have earned the trust of consumers. They don’t make their problems into yours. They walk the talk.