How to Make Company Culture Changes That Stick

How to Make Company Culture Changes That Stick

We all want to build a culture of customer service and success. Here’s how to actually make that happen.

We all want to build a culture of customer service and success. Here’s how to actually make that happen.

Every year, during the first week of January, the gym across the street from my apartment gets packed.

Dozens of New Years Resolution-makers crowd the weight room and cardio machines, determined to make good on their promise to themselves that this would be the year that they finally start exercising.

With each passing week, many of the new members start dropping off, coming in more and more infrequently.

By the middle of February, the gym looks much as it did in December. What happened?

The answer is pretty simple, and shouldn’t surprise anyone: change is hard. Lasting change is really hard.

For someone who doesn’t exercise, simply saying that they’re going to start going to the gym three times per week is all-but-guaranteed to lead to eventual failure.

The same is true for changing a company’s culture.

Just as we know that exercise is healthy for us, we know that a company culture focused on customer support can lead to many benefits.

But simply saying “we’re now focused on support” doesn’t make it so.

Most companies who set out to make big culture changes fail.

In fact, one ISPI study suggests that a whopping 81% of culture change initiatives fail. That means that for every ten companies that sets out to make culture changes, fewer than two of them will succeed.

The numbers are scary, but don’t let that deter you. Building a better culture will make your business stronger for years to come, and it can be done.

Here’s how.

Step 1: Start With Why

If a manager sent this email to her team, how would the employees feel?

Confused about how this actually helps the company?

Annoyed at the extra work they now need to do?

Demoralized at having changes mandated without their input?

Yes, yes and yes.

If you want a culture change to fail — either because it doesn’t get adhered to or because it makes your employees unhappy — then simply mandate it and do nothing else.

But if you want to build lasting change, everyone involved must understand why it’s in their best interest.

What’s more inspiring, the manager’s mandate in the beginning of this section, or a call to action that starts with why?

Getting your team eagerly bought into culture shift is the first step to lasting change.

Step 2: Engage Your Team

In The Lenovo Way, authors Gina Qiao and Yolanda Conyers describe how Lenovo needed to make a big culture change in the late 90’s.

The Chinese company had big plans to turn itself into a massive global business. One of the things standing in its way, executives believed, was the company’s strict Chinese corporate culture.

Employees at Lenovo’s headquarters referred to CEO Yang Yuanqing as “Chief Executive Officer Yang.”

Formalities like that simply wouldn’t work if the company wanted to open offices in places like Europe and North America (the “why” for a culture change), and Yang knew that.

But instead of just creating a policy to try and relax the company’s culture — a move that would’ve been sure to fail — Yang dove in and engaged his team.

For two weeks, Yang and other top executives stood in the lobby of Lenovo’s HQ, holding signs with their first names written on them.

They shook hands with employees and casually introduced themselves.

At first, many employees were afraid to address the execs without using their formal titles, fearing that it might sound disrespectful.

But sure enough, after a short time — once Yang began jokingly threatening to fire employees who called him “Chief Executive Officer” — the change took.

Since then, Lenovo has become the world’s biggest PC maker, and Yang — or “YY,” as his employees now call him — has been hailed as one of the most impressive turnaround CEO’s in the industry.

YY isn’t the only proof that employee engagement makes culture change possible. When Gallup studied change management, they found that managers in the top quartile — those most successful in managing organizational change — engaged 77% of their employees, on average. On the other end of the spectrum, managers in the bottom quartile engaged only 1% of their employees on average, and 54% of their employees were actively disengaged.

No matter how hard an organization’s leaders advocate for change, when more than half of the employees on a given team refuse to participate, it’s unlikely that change will happen.

Chee Tung Leong, Gallup

If you want to make change happen, your team has to see it happen from the top down.

Step 3: Take Baby Steps

Just like a couch potato probably won’t succeed by committing to exercise every single day, a company that tries to make humongous culture shifts at once is setting itself up for disappointment.

As author and business consultant Robert H. Schaffer suggests in the Harvard Business Review, start small.

We’ve found that managers get better results when they start with a few smaller successes, which then provide a basis for expanding. Start with one problem — or a few. Get some people to plan a couple of modest experiments to make progress on that issue, with guidance on the kinds of innovation you’d like to see. Build in some learning on the cultural issues that need to change. Try it out. Pay careful attention to what works and how. Incorporate the successful ideas into subsequent steps.

Robert H. Schaffer

By starting small, your team can get a taste of the benefits of the culture change you’re trying to make with minimal effort.

Once you’re reaping the rewards of your small change, your team will be more motivated to work towards larger changes.

In the case of building a culture of support, here are a few examples of baby steps that you can start with:

Five baby steps that can help you build a culture of customer service

  1. Everyone responds to a single customer support ticket each day… or even each week. If your company is larger, then reduce this to a one person from each department.

  2. Add this simple question to your project planning sessions: “How does this help our customers succeed?”

  3. Commit to doing a single Net Promoter Score survey. Once you see the results, you’ll be inspired to act on them.

  4. Wow just one customer each week. Send a handwritten note, treat or other small customer gift.

  5. Try incorporating one of the essential customer service phrases that you’re not already using into your support vocabulary. Gradually add the others.

Change Is Hard. Give Your Business a Chance to Succeed.

It’s not easy to change a culture that’s been the same for any significant amount of time. But there are ways to set yourself up to not be part of the 81% of culture change initiatives that fail.

Make sure your whole team understands why you’re making the change, get everyone on board by engaging with them from the top down, and start with baby steps.

Change won’t happen overnight, but by starting small, you’ll start seeing the results very, very quickly.

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