Service culture guru, Ron Kaufman, shares how good service can engage people and change the world
Issue: Jul 2011
Ron Kaufman speaking about service as a core competitive advantage for malls at the CapitaMalls Asia (China) Retailers' Forum 2011 in Chengdu
Motivational speaker, inspirational educator, prolific author and vocal advocate of excellent service, Ron Kaufman is also part crusader, part cheerleader and all passionate. For more than two decades, his mission has been to put a smile on the world by teaching people how to better treat one another.
But don't mistake his simple message for a simplistic one. This visionary preaches something much more substantial than holding hands and wishing peace to all mankind. Highly sought after in the business world, he counts international corporations, powerful CEOS and government organisations amongst his many clients around the world and in every major industry. He has also been rated one of the world's “Top 25 Who's Hot” speakers by Speaker Magazine, The National Speakers Association's award-winning official publication.
In person, he is dynamic, charismatic, energetic and downright fun. He speaks with convincing logic and provides clear steps to quantifiable goals in customer service with his proven methodology. But before he became a management guru, this American citizen who now calls Singapore home had a successful career organising international Frisbee tournaments in the 70s. At the height of the Cold War, he even managed to arrange cross-cultural visits that saw the sport being played at Moscow's Red Square and the Great Wall of China. In Singapore, he works with companies, industry associations and government agencies in an ongoing, nationwide service improvement programme.
INSIDE speaks to Ron Kaufman for his insights into service that can change the world.
INSIDE: You not only have a degree in International History, you have made history with your cross-cultural arrangements during the Cold War. So how did you go from being a history graduate to marketing international Frisbee tournaments in the 70s to becoming a guru in customer service now?
KAUFMAN: I was a student at Brown University and subsequently I spent two more years studying in Europe. As a student, I was particularly interested in how countries come together after a war because unfortunately, the European environment was riddled by war for a long time. But we always seem to get over it somehow. How does it happen?
As I was interested in Frisbee, I was then also keen to discover how sports contributed to people getting along. For example, there was ping pong diplomacy when America's table tennis team was invited to visit China. It was just a table tennis team but it opened up huge possibilities. If you look at the Olympic Games, countries come together to compete on the sports arena even though they are actually fighting in the trenches. But they put it aside for the sake of being able to play the sport.
I then became very conscious of how to get people to participate at different levels in terms of age, culture, different kinds of organised environments and settings. When I was marketing international Frisbee tournaments, I had to work with different groups of people, the media, the fans, the players, the police, etc and I had to listen very carefully to how they wanted to design events that would allow everyone to have a good Saturday morning at the games. Since then, I became really attuned to this thing called service.
But at that time I was doing all this, I didn't call it service. I called it Frisbee or international relations or being an ambassador between countries or teaching people to get along.
INSIDE: What is your definition of customer service?
KAUFMAN: Service, then, is really people taking care of other people. You add a commercial transaction in this and it becomes customer service, people creating value for other people.
The interesting thing about customer service in CapitaLand is that you really have so many different types of customers. People who are shopping in Funan DigitaLife Mall for example probably expect efficiency, IT knowledge, a high-tech environment while a family going to a suburban mall would expect a place for children to run around and relax. Your tenants are also your customers and they value good reputation, foot traffic, etc. Customer values are different. That's why we have customer segmentation.
The interesting thing that very few people talk about in a mall is a culture of uplifting service for each other and the customer. This is where CapitaMalls Asia is really advocating, the whole mall led by the landlord shaping a service culture where everyone benefits.
INSIDE: For a long time, good service and cultivating a service culture have been considered a soft skill, a little nebulous and certainly difficult to quantify. How did you come up with specific action steps to developing a service culture? Where do you get your ideas and insights from?
KAUFMAN: They are from 25 years of experience working with organisations around the world in different industries, hearing and seeing examples of things that do work and things that don't.
My company helps organisations engineer the development of a culture. In order to engineer it, you need an architecture, a framework, a structure. That's why we say there are three elements that are needed.
Number one, you got to have a foundation of service education so that everybody has a certain level of service literacy. Service education is about understanding what service is, the service mindset and what they can do in their own role with colleagues and with customers to upgrade service levels. The second element is the 12 building blocks of service culture. There are 12 different areas where companies need to pay attention to and make sure that what they are doing reinforces the same culture. These 12 blocks include recruitment, service metrics, recognition etc. The third element is service leadership. What we propose is that everyone can lead from all levels. Of course, the leader has to also walk the talk and talk the talk in order to lead the pack.
INSIDE: How much and in what way can a good service culture help a company's bottom line?
KAUFMAN: First of all, if you have a really good service culture, people don't really want to quit. When people don't quit, you have got good staff who know the business better. So you don't have the problem of retention and recruitment which is expensive. Plus when people quit, it is demoralising for the others who are still in the company. From the customer side, it is pretty obvious that good service means customers prefer coming back, they buy more, they tell their friends. In a strong service culture, a customer with a complaint is embraced because the sooner you know what you are doing wrong, the faster you can fix it. So again it touches the company's reputation in the market, publicity in the media, all of those things contribute to the bottom line.
INSIDE: What is the most important thing to successful engagement of employees?
KAUFMAN: It's giving them the experience that they can choose their own next action that can be a positive improvement for somebody else. In other words if I just treat you like a robot - “just do what you're told” - it's not very engaging. But if I have you learn what it is that somebody else appreciates and values and I encourage and enable you to come up with your own new action to create value for another person, that is very engaging. That's why we talk about service education instead of service training. Service training teaches somebody what to do. Service education teaches you how to think about service, and then choose what is best to do from your own understanding and appreciation of each service situation.
INSIDE: You have spoken to people from all over the world and from different industries. Are there cultural or industry differences in customer service standards and quality that you have observed?
KAUFMAN: In China, there is a lot of demand for new products and service, and the people are catching up in terms of what qualities of services are possible to deliver and to experience.
In Singapore, the population is so cosmopolitan and sophisticated. The whole country has built its success based on continuously improving standards. But the word “standard” doesn't really include the word “spirit”. Singapore's issue now is the attitude, the heart. In service there is skill set, there's also mindset. There's behaviour, there's also attitude. And that joy, that desire to make someone else's day feel good, to be compassionate, to show concern, to be a little more patient, to go out of your way just to make someone else smile or to delight somebody, that's something in the Singapore culture we're still working on.
INSIDE: You seem eternally upbeat and you have made it your career to boost the morale of companies and organisations. Does anything ever get you down and how do you cheer yourself up?
KAUFMAN: I am really fortunate because what I am committed to inspires me. Anytime I'm down, all I need to do is to reach out and reconnect with why I am doing this. And not only does Singapore, the companies and the people I work with get the benefit but I get the benefit, too. It's a mission worth pursuing. If you are going to put your life energy into something, this is something that is worth it. If I can help to uplift the spirits of people in service to other people, that's a good thing.