Article | 17 min read

We’re not all meant to serve customers, but if you do… a Q&A with CX leader Jeff Toister

By Kate Crane

Last updated July 14, 2022

Many of us find our early service jobs forgettable—that is, if we don’t actively seek to strike them from memory altogether. Not so for Jeff Toister, author of The Service Culture Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Your Employees Obsessed with Service. He took a harsh teen-years experience with serving customers and followed it into a life calling. Although his company focuses on employee performance and helping organizations develop customer-focused cultures, Toister sees broad implications for his work. “Teamwork and collaboration are critical whether you’re talking about a large corporation or a small business,” he says.

In advance of his presentation at Relate Live 2017, Toister spoke about authenticity, customer-focused cultures, and how individuals can have an impact on their organization, no matter what is coming from the top down.

(For the full low-down on the customer-service snafu that started Toister’s career, scroll down to hear him tell the tale in his own words.)

So, you work at a company where it’s toxic from the top down. You can’t leave or don’t want to. What is the productive path forward?

What I advise people to do when they find themselves in that position is to focus on creating a center of excellence. In other words, focus on what you can control. So that might be your team, it might be your department or division. If you’re an individual contributor, it might be your own work. But you really can’t criticize anybody else in your organization if you’re not doing your very best. I have seen plenty of instances where you can have say a particular team that’s doing outstanding work despite the overall leadership in a company.

What’s within an individual’s control?

More than we think. I’ll give you a real specific example. I was working with a customer service team who really felt beat up. It was a software company, and the company would release software every few weeks and it’d have all these bugs in it and customers wouldn’t know how to use it. And so they would naturally get angry and they would call in. The company was also understaffed in their customer service department—wait times could be an hour. Those poor agents. They didn’t create the buggy software. They didn’t decide to release updates every couple weeks. They didn’t deny the request for funding to increase staffing. And so they felt completely helpless, even kind of abused by their company.

We did a little exercise where you say, “Well, okay, you can’t control those things, but what can you control? What’s within your sphere of influence?” It was really amazing. As a group they resolved, “Well, we can leave our customers better off at the end of a call than we did at the beginning.” They realized that they became so anxious that they were speeding through the call, not taking enough time to empathize with the customer and de-escalate the situation. And also not asking that additional question or two that typically uncovered a hidden need. So what would happen is the customer would get off the phone not feeling great and then an hour or two later realize that problem wasn’t fully resolved. And they’d have to call back—insult to injury.

When they started addressing those issues, they found that their wait times went down; they hadn’t realized before they were helping to generate a lot of those excess calls. When wait times went down and they were able to catch their breath a little bit, they could start being proactive. Their leadership team would take call recordings and verbatim feedback to the developers and say, “I want you to know the impact of your latest release. Let’s listen to some calls. What’s the next release that you have planned? Will it address these two priority issues?” Things were never going to be perfect, but they got a lot better once the individual agents embraced what they were able to control in that situation.

When a company is developing internal messaging about its love for customers, how can it ensure that the result doesn’t sound fake?

The short answer: Keep it real. The process that a lot of companies use to create this messaging is usually inauthentic from the beginning, and that’s where you get a bad result. The most important component of messaging that customer-focused organizations use is what’s called a customer service vision. It’s a shared definition of outstanding service that everybody knows and understands.

Keep it real. The process that a lot of companies use to create this messaging is usually inauthentic from the beginning, and that’s where you get a bad result.

Which is often where it goes off the rails. Companies that create this typically bring in an outside consultant to work with the executive teams—or the executive team just kind of wings it. And then they announce it, like, from on high: From now on, this is our messaging… By default, it’s not authentic because you didn’t include the primary stakeholders you’re trying to target in developing this.

That’s another area where it falls short, even when employees are included. We get so lost in this language and we’re trying to include all these big, impressive words that no one knows what the heck it means. It sounds great and you’re like, “Wow, that’s fantastic. We’ve got all the words in there.” But no one can say, “Well, this is what it means to me. This is how I would explain it.”

What’s more, a lot of organizations have what I call too many cultural artifacts. A cultural artifact is like a mission or vision or anything else that helps describe or explain your vision. They come up with all these different things, but the process they use to come up with them are all separate.

I worked with a restaurant chain, for example, where they had a mission, a service promise or service credo, they had kind of a four-step service guarantee, they had 17 steps that service was expected to follow. Like, you’re just… What’s important here? The worse part is they didn’t match. They didn’t all feed off each other. They weren’t all branches off the same tree. In isolation they sounded great, but put together it was confusion.

That’s a pretty vivid picture of customer-service visions gone wrong. What’s the ideal?

The best customer service visions are very simple. They cut to the core. I really like JetBlue’s: Inspire humanity. Really simple, razor sharp.

The best customer service visions are very simple. They cut to the core. I really like JetBlue’s: Inspire humanity. Really simple, razor sharp.

How important is the language itself?

Every company needs to find the terms that are most authentic to their values and mission—it’s what’s right for your company, what’s right for your situation, what resonates with your culture. Words should definitely be carefully chosen when it comes to defining culture. But sometimes we run afoul of that when we reach for words that another company used successfully.

That doesn’t work. That’s inauthentic. Something may have worked for that great company, but that doesn’t mean that your story matches theirs.

As long as they’re carefully chosen and have meaning, any words can be good, but you can create the opposite intended effect if you’re using the buzzword of the moment.

Does pleasing customers ever get old? I love that story about the stuffed tiger in the Tampa airport. Is there a formula for how to both delight and surprise customers in an ongoing way?

Well, there is a formula, that’s the good news. But a lot of it revolves around perception. The example of the stuffed tiger that I use in the book where in the Tampa airport a child loses a tiger and they [airport personnel] take all the pictures and all that, that wasn’t a new concept. They read about it somewhere else. But it still makes the news when it happens. Our perception around service and service quality … The formula really is: Anything that is outside of the norm is going to capture our attention.

I’ll give you a very simple example. When you walk into a room and turn on a light switch and the lights come on, that’s exactly what you expect. You don’t stop and marvel at the wonders of electricity. You don’t say, “Wow, that’s the tenth time in a row the lights have come on when I flip the …” You just go about your day.

Most service interactions that we experience are the same way. They really match what we expected, so they don’t have any particular significance. The only things that our brains really take note of are things that are outside of the realm of normal. Going back to the light switch, if I turn on the light switch and the lights don’t come on, that captures my attention in a negative way. In might be a small negative if it’s just the light bulb that’s out. It might be a larger negative if there’s a fuse or a circuit that tripped. And it can be a huge negative if I have to call the electrician and spend a thousand dollars to fix a problem.

Customer service, it’s the same way. Bad service is where the experience is worse than we expected. We notice that, but we also notice how well the company responds to it. A small issue handled well becomes not a big thing. Big issues tend to kind of get exasperated. And then on the other end of the spectrum, again going back to the light switch, you can flip on the light switch and all your closest friends and family are there and they’re throwing you a surprise party. You’re like, “Yay, it’s great!” Right. It’s an unusual moment in a very positive way that stands out, and service is the same way. When something happens that’s very positive, it’s definitely way beyond the norm, you notice those things. But if every time you flipped on the light switch, it was a surprise party, you would probably go from amazement to “Oh, okay,” to “Stop it.”

If every time you flipped on the light switch, it was a surprise party, you would probably go from amazement to “Oh, okay,” to “Stop it.”

It’s the play on what do you expect, and how different is it that really gets noticed. But the unusual thing about this is that you could have ten service interactions and nine of them were just normal and unremarkable. So it’s the quality of that tenth one that’s unusual that will frame how you perceive all of the service you’ve experienced with that company or with that employee.

It sounds like there’s an element of magic too—concepts and ideas and a formula. But it does come down to the creativity and passion of individual people. Who, if they feel empowered, are gonna come up with delights that create that tenth experience.

I think that’s part of it. Certainly in the sense that being able to go above and beyond for a customer, which we often think of in service, that extra mile. It’s about recognizing the opportunity first and then second, as you say, having that creativity to do something that stands out in a positive way. But I also think longer-term for an organization, it’s about designing service and products and even experiences that support that.

Chip Bell, an author and customer service guru, says in Kaleidoscope that going the extra mile’s not sustainable. What you can do though is create value unique.

Any good examples of that?

Zappos used to automatically upgrade you to free two-day shipping and not tell you about it and it was a surprise and delight. So that’s a systemic thing. But after a while, everybody knew that that’s what would happen. It was no longer a surprise and delight, but it was a point of difference compared to maybe their competitors. So it still held an advantage. But if you were able to do things that are unique and add a certain level of value, I’d say that’s different than other organizations, you can sustain that without the surprise and delight moments.

How do customer-focused people find customer-focused companies to work with?

Well, there isn’t a universal customer service personality. The person that you might hire to work at the Ritz Carlton may have some things in common with the flight attendant that you hire for Southwest Airlines, but they’re fundamentally different businesses. It really depends on the unique characteristics of the organization. So it’s important for companies if they wanna hire people, to take time to decide what they are. And then, how do we screen potential applicants for those characteristics?

I think it’s the same thing with looking for a job. You have to understand what you value and get clear about your own personal values and what type of culture you thrive in. I think most job applicants don’t know that, so they kinda go on this gut assessment, “What’s the vibe I got in the interview?” There’s been research that’s done that a lot of interviews are so poorly constructed that you’d actually make better hiring decisions if you skipped the interview entirely. That’s a pretty huge indictment of the whole interview process.

And so for employees, the one thing I would recommend if you’re looking for a job and you want to know: Is this culture really the right place for me? Start by really being clear what kind of culture you wanna work in. And then when you go to your job interviews, ask the question to multiple people, “Tell me about the culture here. What’s the work environment like? How are employees treated?” What you’re looking for is not only a good answer but a consistent answer. You wanna talk to the recruiter. You wanna talk to the person who’s gonna be your boss. You wanna talk to a couple people separately who might be your coworkers. And if you get a consistent answer to that question, it’s an answer you like, then you probably are gonna find that the culture there is something that you’re going to enjoy. If you get an inconsistent answer, it is a big red flag that either your culture is not so well ingrained in this organization, it’s not clearly defined, there might even be conflicts, that you can’t expect that culture to really manifest itself when you join that organization.

Why do people keep working for and patronizing companies that have poor cultures? Both in terms of workplace culture and how they treat customers?

I mean, there’s two separate questions, right? The employee versus the customer. The customer’s a little bit easier. And the simple answer is there’s more than one reason to be a customer. Great service is certainly a part of it, but there’s multiple factors. There’s a convenience factor. There’s a cost factor–how much are you willing to pay for great service? There’s even the perception that “I’m getting poor service from my bank, but it’s gonna be an epic hassle to move my account to another bank. And I’m probably just gonna get bad service there too.”

There’s also this notion, this is kind of a quirky one… Let’s say we go to United Airlines. I talked to a lot of people that are loyal United Airlines customers. The question was, “Okay, you’ve seen all these well-publicized incidents, is this gonna change how you interact with this company?” And a lot of them said, no. And the reason they said no is because, “What you see in the news has not been my experience.” Or, “I’ve flown a million miles with them, and I have a permanent higher level of status that I will never get on another airline. I’m willing to take my chances because I’ve had tons of amazing experiences.” So culture isn’t the only reason that customers decide to do business with a company.

And employees?

On that front, maybe the employee doesn’t feel that he or she has viable alternatives. Maybe that income is so important in the moment. I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve studied these issues. For example, there’s learned helplessness, where someone basically decides that no matter what they do, things are not going to get better, and so they’re just going to stop trying. So they just show up at work every day, they do the minimum, they go home. We see that in a lot of customer service environments.

People aren’t honest with themselves about where their strengths lie. So you have someone who’s in that job and day after day, there’s friction between themselves and their coworkers, their boss, their customers. And a lot of times, they’re really just in the wrong place because we’re not all meant to serve customers day after day after day. That’s not the skillset for everybody. And some people are fantastic in some environments and absolutely terrible in others. That’s perfectly all right.

There’s an epidemic in the customer service industry called directed attention fatigue, which affects the part of our brain that’s constantly focusing on our attention and blocking out distractions. We have so many distractions in a typical customer service environment that people are finding it hard to concentrate, and they don’t like it.

That is one of the biggest challenges in the customer service industry is that everybody needs to take a break and recharge. The part of our brain that we use to really focus on our customer and listen intently and understand their needs—it gets worn out. And when it gets worn out, we get cranky and we’re not as good at customer service.

The part of our brain that we use to really focus on our customer and listen intently and understand their needs—it gets worn out. And when it gets worn out, we get cranky and we’re not as good at customer service.

Could you speak to measures of great customer-focused culture?

The one test that I really use to measure culture is that consistency. Can employees consistently answer three questions. One, what is our customer service vision? Or put another way, what is our culture? We should have some sort of statement or defining principle. The second question is, what does that mean? In your own words, in plain language. And the third is, how do I personally contribute?

I think employee engagement is the way that you measure the culture.

How do we measure it and improve it if we can’t even define it?

It really goes back to those three questions. In other words, do they know how they can make a contribution? I really believe that if your employees don’t know the answers to those questions, engagement’s impossible. ’Cause engagement’s not job satisfaction. It’s not, “Oh, I really like working here. Everybody’s great.”

Engagement is, “I understand what this company’s all about, and I’m also passionate about that purpose. I go to work every day trying to be a part of that success.” So you can measure culture by the service employees provide. To me, that’s the ultimate measure of a culture.

Kate Crane splits her time as a content marketing manager between writing for Relate and the Zendesk blog. A longtime New Yorker and veteran of publications including SmartMoney and Time Out New York, she is now based in Silicon Valley—for the trees, not the Teslas or Zuckerberg sightings.