Jill Nelson

October 19, 2017

Incent, Inspire, and Empower to Build a Culture of Service

How to Create a Culture of Excellent Customer ServiceWhen I founded Ruby Receptionists 14 years ago, my aim was to help small businesses become more efficient by “offloading” their phone duties. As with many startups, those early days were both exciting, and filled with gut-wrenching worry about whether the money would run out before the value of our service was discovered. Not only were we unknown, but the whole idea of a “virtual receptionist” was unknown too, and our marketing budget was practically nil. Thankfully, we found a small but raving customer base who stuck with us, and told anyone who would listen how we were the best thing that had happened to their business.

Those early customers were so pivotal, not just for helping us get off the ground, but for showing us what our true value proposition was. Our natural, friendly, phone demeanor and desire to help was winning business for our customers, and while our service may have made customers more efficient, the real magic was in the connections we built with their callers. It was those first customers who helped us discover our mission: to keep alive those real, meaningful human connections that are increasingly lost in this technology age. Since those early days, Ruby has grown and changed beyond my wildest dreams. I’m proud to say we’ve kept our mission and our culture of service alive through it all, thanks in great part to our management philosophy of Incent, Inspire, Empower. I am sharing this story today in hopes that many of you can benefit from Ruby’s experiences—both our achievements and challenges—to help drive the success of your own business.

Whatever your line of work, a service-driven culture fosters happy customers and employees, and that translates to increased revenue and business growth. Research shows 78% of customers will recommend a brand to others if satisfied by their customer experience, and satisfied longtime customers are especially valuable to growing businesses—it’s estimated that the cost of acquiring a new customer is anywhere from five to 25 times more expensive than retaining an existing one. Happy longtime employees are a similar boon to your bottom line: Highly engaged employees are less likely to leave their companies than their disengaged counterparts, sparing growing businesses from the steep cost of employee turnover.

A Culture of Customer Service Defined

A culture of service starts with knowing what you stand for, and hiring people dedicated to those same values. At Ruby, we work hard to find people who live for making connections, and who see every phone call as an opportunity to make a small difference in someone’s day—a powerful reason to want to come to work.

But hiring team members aligned with your mission isn’t always enough. During a period of intense growth a few years ago, we found ourselves with a record number of new employees. While longtime employees understood they were free and encouraged to look for out-of-the-box ways to wow our customers, that tribal knowledge didn’t necessarily transfer to our new staffers. We were at a turning point: How do we keep our culture of service alive and thriving in times of transition? How do we train on these special, seemingly intangible things that set our business apart? I held brainstorming sessions with everyone on staff, and out of those sessions came the inspiration for our Incent, Inspire, Empower management philosophy.

Incent. As Rubys, we want our mission and five core values—Foster Happiness, Create Community, Practice WOWism, Innovate, and Grow—to drive everything we do. When our actions and decisions are in sync with our mission and values, we know we’re carving a path to happy customers, callers, and coworkers. One of the many ways we incent our team to live those values is with our Core Values in Action Awards. Each quarter, employees are encouraged to nominate themselves or their team members for an award by sharing a story exemplifying core value in action. Then, at our all-team staff meetings, five employees earn recognition for their embodiment of our core values, complete with a cash prize. While the money is, of course, an incentive, the peer recognition is perhaps a greater one, and watching our team cheer and celebrate exceptional employees for their service each quarter is incredibly heartwarming.

Inspire. As evidenced by our Core Values in Action Awards, story-sharing is big at Ruby. We enjoy expressing our triumphs and congratulating one another on successes, and have found doing so keeps the energy and positivity flowing on even the toughest of days. So, naturally, when anyone on staff receives a compliment from a caller or customer, we share it! We email our compliments to a shared distribution list—and believe me, they add up quickly. Any time you’re in need of a pick-me-up, a quick glance at our “werock” emails is sure to brighten your day and inspire you to keep fighting the good fight against impersonal service and lackluster workdays.

Empower. Our entire staff has access to a prepaid Amazon account, and when a team member feels moved to send something special to a customer, they’re free to make it happen—no questions asked. It’s not just about gift giving though—when the mood strikes, receptionists are encouraged to step away from the phones and take the time to pen a handwritten notecard or record a personal video message for our customers. If even the slightest spark of desire to make a connection hits, we want to fan the flame by empowering anyone and everyone on staff to see it through. Employees feel respected, trusted, and valued through this empowerment—and customers are delighted by their thoughtful gestures.

That All Sounds Great—But How Do I Create a Culture of Service?

First, and most critically, you need to define your mission, and your staff needs to be driven by that same mission. The way your company aims to positively impact the lives of your customers will be unique to your business and your team must be on board. Without an innate desire to follow through on your mission, any efforts to incent, inspire, and empower your team are likely to fall flat. Need help defining your company purpose, values, or vision? Check out the Small Giants eBook: Purpose, Values, Vision – A Practical Guide. 

Our specific methods of incenting, inspiring, and empowering employees were born out of feedback from those very employees, so once you’ve got your aligned team, try holding brainstorming sessions to ask:

  • What would make it easier for us to connect with customers amidst the inevitable hubbub of everyday?
  • How do we make sure connection-making opportunities don’t get lost?
  • How can we incent employees to make those connections?
  • How can we carve out time to make our customers feel special?

The goal is to make it second nature for everyone on staff to go above and beyond for customers in their own way. Once you’ve brainstormed solutions, put them into action and create training to support them so as you gain new employees, they’re prepared to strive for those connection-building opportunities from day one. Find ways to encourage exceptional service, build systems to make it as effortless as possible to achieve, and then, think of more ways to get there. Wow, rinse, repeat.

I’ve seen firsthand the powerful effects of incenting, inspiring, and empowering a staff. If a culture of service is something you’re striving for, I hope Ruby can serve as a model to help you get there. When a team of aligned, dedicated employees is given the encouragement and freedom to go above and beyond for customers, the results are nothing short of revolutionary.

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About Jill Nelson

A driven entrepreneur passionate about building a one-of-a-kind company, Jill Nelson has grown Ruby Receptionists into a four-time winner of FORTUNE magazine’s top five Best Small Companies to Work for, and a Portland Business Journal’s Fastest Growing Companies in Oregon recipient for the past nine years. Since founding the company in 2003, Jill’s vision for Ruby includes a workplace in which people are excited to come to each day, and are inspired to learn, grow, and connect with others. Today, Ruby’s 430 employees provide live receptionist service to more than 6,500 small businesses throughout North America and relentlessly pursue Ruby’s mission of creating real, meaningful connections to deliver memorable customer and employee experiences.