Culture Drives Great (and Awful) Customer Experiences

I am fortunate in that I live in a suburb of Philadelphia where there are lots of shopping choices.  Within twenty minutes of my house I can get to two major malls, several big box hardware stores, uncountable drug stores, and lots of great specialty shops.  Within ten minutes of my house, however, my choices are much more limited.  In fact, there’s exactly one department store within ten minutes: Kmart.  If there’s a bright center to the corporate culture universe, Kmart is the furthest point away from it.

99% of the time I avoid Kmart because I value both my time and my soul, and nothing kills both faster than a trip to the big K.  Sometimes, however, I need something in a hurry and am too impatient to drive an extra ten minutes each way. “Just run in and get what you need,” the impatient part of my brain will whisper. “Yeah, it’s Kmart, but it’s just a simple thing and even if you spend 15 minutes in line you come out ahead.”  My long-term memory attempts to speak up, reminding me of the deep emotional trauma I had as the result of my last trip, but Impatience kicks Memory in the head like some bizarre cross between Pixar’s Inside Out and a WWE cage match, and I head towards Kmart.

From the outside Kmart looks almost exactly like it did in the 1970s, a time filled with warm memories of my grandmother taking me shopping for forbidden toy dart guns while she zoomed in towards the latest blue light special.  Once inside it looks a lot like a Target or a Walmart, except quieter.  Much, much quieter.  It’s quieter because almost nobody is there.

I go and search for the thing I need.  Last time it was a flashlight for a camping trip.  I find the camping section soon enough, spend a moment amazed that they can have several varieties of completely useless-to-me flashlight, finally find a reasonable compromise, and head to the registers.  I’ve been in rowdier libraries.

At the front of the store there are two registers open.  All ten people in the store must be in line, because despite the amazingly light crowd each line is five deep.  I choose a line and wait for it to crawl forward, mentally counting towards the 20 minutes I thought I was saving.

Finally, I reach the register.  The cashier doesn’t look happy to see me.  In fact, he doesn’t look happy about anything.  But he’s not angry, or sullen, or sad.  He’s just sort of lifeless, as if somebody emptied him out, inflated him again, and then propped him up at the register on autopilot.

“Do you have a bonus rewards card?” he asks in the same tone that one might ask “Would you like a colonoscopy?”  I tell him I do not, and he half-heartedly asks me if I would like one (a rewards card, not a colonoscopy.)  Rather than scream “THERE’S NO WAY I WANT YOU PEOPLE KNOWING WHERE I LIVE!” I simply shake my head, and the painful ritual of checkout is then ready to continue.

He rings up my single item across the bar code scanner, and the register cues him to try the upsell. “Would you like to buy the extended protection on this for $3.99?” he asks.  It’s a flashlight.  I’m comfortable that it will last a year or two and decline.  He asks if I’d like to donate to a charity, and I say no thank you, strangely feeling guilty and uncomfortable despite my other contributions to various causes.  Finally I’m checked out, and I clutch my bag and escape.

A simple purchase has made me feel frustrated, impatient, and guilty all at once.  But more importantly, I feel pity.  I pity the people who have to work there, because at least I get to escape with my flashlight.

The worst places to work

Every summer, 24/7 Wall Street comes out with their list of the worst companies to work for.  Kmart and its corporate sibling Sears have both been high on the list for the last several years (thank you, Eddie Lampert.)  Unsurprisingly, the parent company of both, Sears Holdings Corporation, has gone from having $1.2 billion in cash reserves in 2011 to being $1.6 billion in debt by the end of 2015.  You have to admire the ability of a corporation to lose more money than most organizations will ever have, but that can’t be good.

Some would argue that the employees of Sears and Kmart are miserable because times are tough.  Their stores are suffering, wages are low, and the whole scene is depressing. From a customer experience perspective, however, that picture is backwards.  Both stores have a miserable culture, which is how they manage to show up on the worst places to work list year after year.  They don’t have a miserable culture because times are tough; times are tough because they have a miserable culture, which drives poor customer experiences, which drives poor performance.

Culture drives experience, and experience drives performance. It’s that simple.

Why culture matters

But why does culture even matter in a company like Kmart?  We’re not talking about a high-touch organization like Nordstrom’s or the Ritz-Carlton, we’re talking about a commodity department store.  Who cares if the employees aren’t delighted to be there?

Culture is shorthand for the beliefs and behaviors of an organization.  While culture only lives and breathes with the participation of the every employee, leadership sets the template and makes the economic decisions that support or undermine the culture.  Clearly neither Sears nor Kmart has established themselves as the Place You Want To Work, or even the Place That Gives a Damn About Customers.

While there are plenty of articles and testimonials about how far Kmart has fallen, an even more concise article from Business Insider about Sears makes the point better.  From the article, “According to Consumer Affairs, 86 percent of customers are unsatisfied with Sears’ customer service. That gives it a worse rank than competitors like Macy’s, Kohl’s, and JCPenney.”

86% dissatisfaction isn’t just poor performance.  That’s creating a whole generation of people with a grudge.  I strongly suspect that Kmart’s numbers are in the same range.

Culture creates the organizational DNA

If the leadership of a company fills the role of parents, then culture is the behavioral DNA.  It doesn’t define everything about the company, but it does set the pattern.

Culture also creates the emotional context for how people behave when interacting with customers.  If an employee hates his or her company, that employee’s not going to be in love with the idea of dealing with a customer.  Conversely, an employee who really loves working there is going to go the extra mile to make everything better for both the company and its customers.

Culture is what helps an organization understand its role in fulfilling the needs and wants of its customers.  It’s what provides a behavioral template, and helps managers decide who fits and who doesn’t.  It’s what defines the company’s “way”, far more than some values printed on posters or rah-rah cheer sessions at company meetings.

The inevitable Disney comparison

I could provide a great contrasting example by holding up Disney and how they do things.  I could talk about their training, their culture, their carefully designing methods for ensuring that the right beliefs make it from leadership all the way down to the front-line worker.

Instead, I’m going to tell you about Anna, a young woman who used to babysit for my family.  Anna completed her freshman year of college and was then accepted into Walt Disney World’s college internship program.  She spent several months working a relatively low-level job – crowd control during parades at the Magic Kingdom.  The job required her to be on her feet for great lengths of time, wearing a fairly warm costume even in the heat of the Florida sun.  It did not pay particularly well.

She loved it.  She posted pictures to social media nearly every day, smiling with her coworkers, with guests, in front of the castle.  She never complained about the challenges of the job, instead radiating a mixture of happiness and wonder that she even had this opportunity.  When it ended, she was sad to go.

That didn’t happen by accident.  Disney knows they’re getting cheap college labor and putting those students into roles that others might find difficult or menial.  They designed the culture, they designed the experience, and they made an employee into a cast member and a lifelong fan.

It works for anybody

The examples I use are at opposite ends of the spectrum in just about every way possible.  They’re all consumer-facing companies, but the same principles apply to all organizations.  If you want to create a great customer experience, you have to start with a great corporate culture.

It’s the only way.



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