When was the last time you received truly great customer service? I mean truly great—an instance that made your day, you shared with others, and the next time you needed to make the same transaction, didn’t hesitate on which provider to choose?

Exceptional customer service has been the key to success for many great companies (think about the last time you bought something on Amazon.com). But unfortunately, providing exceptional service is often thought of as an after effect of a transaction; an interaction with the sole purpose of doing damage control. Call AT&T to change something on your cellular plan or experience a flight cancellation with US Airways, and you’ll know what I am talking about.

Ansoff’s matrix, a well-respected strategic planning tool, describes alternative strategies for company growth based off existing and new products (or services), and existing and new markets. If you pare down the strategies in terms of cost vs. speed, the underlying message of the matrix is that it’s faster and more cost-effective to sell existing products to existing customers (see illustration below). With this scenario, you aren’t spending time, resources and capital focusing on new initiatives—you are simply leveraging what you already have. Companies who choose the path of diversifying with new offerings into new markets will face the biggest, most expensive challenges with the longest time horizons.

Create a Culture of Customer Service - Strategic Planning

So what’s a business to do? Focus on one quadrant, two quadrants or all four quadrants at the same time? The idea we’re suggesting is that a focus on existing products in existing customers can have a major positive impact on your business—and one of the key areas of that focus is customer service. It may not be very exciting to sell more of what you currently make to customers that already do business with you, but it is very exciting to grow profits—and there are few things more profitable than a loyal customer.

“Globally, we spend $500 billion on marketing each year, and $9 billion on customer service. This is despite the fact that we know that customer retention is the quickest way to profit growth. Smart companies are starting to embrace the notion that customer experience and customer service is the new marketing, as Walker research says that by 2020 customer experience will be more important than price for B2B purchasers,” says NY Times best-selling author of Hug Your Haters, Jay Baer.

Think on that for a minute and then think about the fact that it costs five times more to acquire new customers than to satisfy and retain current customers (Forrester Research). Successful customer retention is not sustainable with short-term rebate programs or once-a-year training sessions with your call center—it has to be embedded deep within your company’s culture. Employees need to feel that each action and interaction, both with others in the organization and externally with customers, is centered on service.
Below are five tips to creating a successful, sustainable culture of customer service in your organization.

1. Foster employee engagement and collaboration. Encouraging teamwork is critical to nurturing any aspect of company culture. Engagement comes easiest with open discussion—a surefire way to ensure your people rebel against new ideas or ways of working is for management to be closed off to feedback. The more connected and engaged your workforce is, the easier it will be to introduce and instill an atmosphere of customer service. It’s extremely difficult to alter any aspect of organizational culture, so begin with a collaborative attitude.
Along with engagement, empower your customer service team to handle issues on the spot. Trust them to make their own decisions, guided by clear authority rights and alternatives for solutions.

2. Construct clear rules of engagement around customer service. This should be a list that can be easily communicated and remembered, and consistent with core values of your organization. “I will communicate positively with customers, do my best to exceed their expectations and quickly solve their problems,” for example. Also, keep the spirit of being easy to do business with in your rules of engagement. The smoother each transaction is, the more loyalty points you win as a provider.

Identify what practices work well with your customers—and use these as best practices for the organization. Standardizing practices along with rules of engagement makes guardrails and expectations crystal clear for your team. When standardizing practices, make sure to consider various customer segments and allowing the top tier the service they deserve. The top tier most likely represents a considerable part of your revenue and is vitally important to the business, so either set a higher standard for them or allow your people flexibility in handling their requests outside of the normal set of best practices.

3. Reinforce the rules of engagement in communications. Share what’s working and not working through real-world examples in meetings with your team—or any other forms of communication your company utilizes. Don’t underestimate the value of success stories that simultaneously praise an employee for upholding the rules of engagement and enforce a best practice with the rest of your team.

Focus on communicating the philosophy as early as possible with new hires. Think of it in terms of learning a new language. The earlier you begin teaching it, the quicker a person learns and the larger a part of their vernacular it will be.

4. Have the right people closely interfacing with customers. Customer-facing roles should be filled with individuals with a desire to genuinely provide quality customer service. Good customer service employees typically have the following traits: empathy, patience, flexibility and language/communication skills. If you don’t have the right people in these roles, move them out and find new, more suitable recruits or take the time to train existing employees to understand the importance of focusing on customer service and the skills they need to develop to provide it.

For roles that do not directly interact with customers, make sure people know how their work connects and provides value to the customer experience. An analyst might not understand how the data she mines is used in a client presentation or for making product development decisions.

5. Reward your team on successes. Rewards can come in many forms from verbal praise to a raise based on consistent, positive customer feedback. Be sure to show your appreciation and the same level of care for your employees as they provide your customers. Employees also enjoy hearing feedback received from customers about service they specifically provided, so don’t forget to distribute feedback.

Be sure your success metrics are clearly defined and communicated, so your team is clear on why they are being rewarded. Developing systems to track satisfaction and keeping an updated scorecard on customer service metrics are essential to knowing where you stand with customers and how you can continue to provide exceptional service.