A great service culture is always a product of a whole architecture that includes education, service processes and structures that support customer-focused behavior.

Most customer-service improvement efforts fail to provide this type of architecture because their design misses, in particular, the strong impact of structure on behavior. Structure may include reporting relationships or physical structures that best facilitate service process. The designers are wary of changing structures to support service outcomes because such change is emotionally charged, takes a significant amount of effort and requires intense commitment. Yet, few individuals or departments can be effective and shine unless their organizational and physical structures are aligned with their brand’s customer service promise.

Heated discussions in the executive suite often revolve around costs and customer service: “Why do we still have service failures when we’ve spent so many resources on solutions?” These discussions are painful and often are replayed over and over again in different ways. They are more likely to spread frustration and create a mood of resignation in managers than produce new or better results.

Emotionally charged territory

Organizations that have difficulty improving service culture and improving the service experience often have a strong hierarchical reporting structure. For an existing hierarchy, the shift from organizational lines of authority to an emphasis on service process and service culture is emotionally charged territory. The change to process-driven service management affects how people work, how they are managed and how their efforts are evaluated. Process-driven management alters the power and influence of individuals and units.

Even managers who haven’t been educated in service processes or in leading a vibrant service culture recognize intuitively that a shift to process management will rock their world. As a result, it is common to find managers who would rather talk about process improvement and work at the edges of the issues rather than implement a complete customer-service solution.

When an organization shifts to process orientation without updating its structure to support the effort, failure can be expected and, indeed, is common.

Process is not difficult to understand, and customer-service process failures are comparatively easy to analyze. With skillful analysis, implementation planning and effective mobilization, the task of finding ways to improve processes is rarely out of reach.

Changing structure and service culture, however, presents an entirely different challenge.

Mom was correct

When your mother reminded you to stand up straight, it turns out she was deeply aware of the power of structure. In our bodies, good posture equals effective structure. People with good posture digest their food better than those who slouch. With good posture you can throw a ball farther and with more accuracy, and you are less prone to injury. It is the same with organizations. Structure that is aligned with what we promise our customers enables a healthy service environment.

Here is an example of the impact of physical structure on service delivery.

In hotels, the concierge is a center of hospitality. A concierge’s primary job is to provide for the needs of guests and to anticipate what will make their visit more satisfying. He or she can help shape guests’ choices to complement their current mood and needs. This offering is an exquisite gift and when executed well, it is service of a very high order.

We recently found concierge desks that were redesigned to reflect a modern architectural look. They are beautiful, but the structure of the redesigned desk works against the concierge. Instead of having all materials right at hand (as the former desks did), the arrangement of the new desk often forces a concierge to leave the location to retrieve basic items, such as packing slips, small-size envelopes and boxes for overnight courier service. The result is that when a guest approaches the concierge with something to send, the concierge grimaces ever so slightly because he must leave his station to fulfill the request instead of naturally opening up the moment of service. A concierge knows that while she is gone, this guest will be kept waiting—actually a lack of service—and there is always the chance that others will arrive and find no one at the desk, making their first encounter empty instead of fulfilling. The structure of the new desk has shaped behavior in a negative way. Those of you who have frontline experience can think of many similar examples from your own work.

Structure can intentionally be shaped to be constructive and to nourish those involved in delivering their company’s service promise. The key is to start with the customer service promise and develop processes that enable 100 percent delivery on that promise. Design reporting relationships to effectively manage these processes. Test the physical structures to see if they efficiently support on brand service. Teach service principles and practices to drive a strong service culture. Together these create a solid platform that makes your best service efforts shine.

Want proof? Look into the companies that you most admire. You will see that their processes are aligned with their service promise and that those companies have intentionally designed an infrastructure that facilitates excellence in the individuals who serve their customers.

Copyright, Todd Lapidus. Contact the author at www.c3corp.com

9 replies
  1. Mike Lytle
    Mike Lytle says:


    Great Article! You certainly hit the nail on the head. At Enterasys we live by our ethos “There is nothing more important than our customers” and it helps us every day in all parts of the business stay focused on the end goal.

  2. Dan Haygeman
    Dan Haygeman says:


    What you say here is, for me, well aimed and right on. I especially appreciate your illustration of the concierge desk change to a less functional structure, and how it produced the small but significant grimace on the part of the person attempting to be of service.

    Another aspect of structural changes that I think strengthens your point even further is that structural changes are usually tangible and observable. Even if there is a shift in reporting structure, rather than a desk or the layout of a room, a person will notice that they are meeting with a different supervisor, or someone else is conducting their weekly meeting. Making these sorts of ‘real’ changes can help people to believe that something is actually happening and counter the cynical, “It’s all just talk anyway,” push-back produced out of the existing culture.

    Dan H.

  3. Todd Lapidus
    Todd Lapidus says:

    @Mike Lytle
    Thanks Mike,

    I appreciate your comment and how great it is to work for a company that aligns its service promise with structure, systems and education that nourish all. If there is one word of advice do you have for anyone who is currently working (and needs to keep their job) in a company that does not provide such clear direction, what would it be?

  4. Todd Lapidus
    Todd Lapidus says:

    @Dan Haygeman
    Hi Dan,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I particularly appreciate the distinction you make between tangible and observable change.

    I have found that structural change is very, very real. In fact, there is no missing it. When a structural change occurs there is no doubt it is real and lasting. This does not mean that it will be a positive experience. When making structural change great vision and great planning are both needed.


  5. Naresh Vassudhev
    Naresh Vassudhev says:

    Wonderful Todd. Bang on. It is not only essential to pay attention to Organizational Design but also to the Interior Design – to align with customer service. You have summed it up so beautifully in a single page article. I see a lot of depth in these.I enjoyed the article.

    Naresh Vassudhev

  6. Todd Lapidus
    Todd Lapidus says:

    Hello Naresh,
    Thank you for your comments. When Organizational Design, Interior Design and Customer Service Education align it is the most wonderful environment for everyone that is touched by a company – customers, colleagues, suppliers and even competitors!


  7. Allan Jensen
    Allan Jensen says:

    I very much agree. I did a posting on this at linked-in http://www.linkedin.com/groupItem?view=&gid=74793&type=member&item=93770579&qid=9461ae8f-c178-4d7d-8986-1f7b9584400a&trk=group_items_see_more-0-b-ttl which I’ll share here for quick reference.

    A customer centric mindset is essential in any function that interacts with customers; whether it is via the web, in person, over the phone or in mailings. You can have a world class customer service outfit, and yet have the customer experience sabotaged even by the unlikeliest departments in your company. Here I’m thinking IT but also drivers and HR, not to forget the receptionist. In fact customer centricity should be imbedded in internal processes of all departments as the chain otherwise easily breaks in an “invisible” part of the service delivery that isn’t customer facing, leading to the wrong, or highly delayed service responses.

    If your organization doesn’t already have a deeply engrained service culture, then it is crucial that there is a prime mover who is an evangelist for reformation in the process landscape. Frequent interaction with all other departments, getting a shared objective around serving the customer is as important, as it is tackling direct customer facing customer service processes.

  8. Allan Jensen
    Allan Jensen says:

    But wait, there is more…

    I have a sad story to share about a sales department – of all places – sabotaging the organization. This happened to me only last week.

    I called the sales department of a well-known global hotel chain running a 5-star brand. As a board member of the city’s Toastmaster organization, I wanted to discuss moving our weekly toastmasters meeting to their hotel as well as hosting a 2-day conference for 50-60 people.

    I first spoke to a junior sales representative, who referred me to the sales manager. She was however unavailable at the time due to a series of meetings.

    I called again the next day and was once more unable to reach the sales manager who was busy in meetings. I presume the meetings were about drumming up more business, and I respect that, so I left a message for her to call me back.

    Two days later, having not heard from her yet, I called one last time. This time I was lucky reaching her on the phone. It was however, very clear from her abrupt manner, that she had no time to talk to me. She was busy going to a meeting and she suggested I drop her an email. She didn’t offer me her email address and our call ended with a quick goodbye.

    I did send her an email, after calling the very courteous reception to obtain her email address. In the email, I offered my advice on where I suggested her focus should be as a sales manager, all in a very civil tongue I assure you. She did have the courtesy to respond to me, with a single line, stating that she would take it under advisement.

    Up until this incident I was a warm proponent of the above organization, however with the indifferent encounter I had with the sales manager, I shall be sure not to send any business their way ever again. On the contrary…

    I have no qualms with the rest of the organization and I know they spend a lot of time and effort in inculcating an excellent service experience with the hotel service staff. However, they overlooked the sales department and that sabotaged the entire effort as far as I am concerned.

  9. Todd Lapidus
    Todd Lapidus says:

    That is sad and your story nicely illustrates one of the great challenges of a service business. One bad, uncaring service provider can undermine hundreds of other caring employees work. A single mid-size hotel typically employee hundreds of people.

    And to top it off, I bet no one ever knows. A lost business report that highlights the sales person’s responsibility in turning you from a loyalist to a detractor, little to no chance of that.

    Who has the answer to that issue?


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