Ask a financial services CEO what makes his or her company different or better than the competition and, more often than not, two factors will top the list – superior service and the company’s corporate culture. Often these two concepts are linked with some variation of the theme “our people make us different”. This, of course, implies that employees – how they are selected, trained, and behave – are both an integral part of the customer service equation and a reflection of the overall corporate culture. However, the challenges are defining what these words actually mean and determining whether or not they reflect day-to-day operating reality.

While creating alignment between cultural values and customer service processes, protocols and behavior is important for all financial institutions, it is absolutely critical for community banks and credit unions. The reason is straightforward: superior customer service is the area that creates the greatest competitive opportunity for these institutions and, importantly, is a battle they can win. The evidence is clear that consumers, and increasingly small businesses, have much more favorable perceptions of smaller banks and credit unions than of large, highly diversified financial services companies, which they see as inflexible, bureaucratic and, overall, hard to do business with. Credit unions in particular are seen as more relatable, focused more on serving their customers than on serving their shareholders. The key is turning these favorable perceptions and powerful cultural values into competitive advantage and market share gains by ensuring that there is a strong and consistent connection between what we say and what we do.

Those financial institutions that actually define the components of their corporate culture usually include items such as “customer-centric”, “relationships”,” solutions” or a phrase similar to “we care about our customers, communities and employees”. Other power words often used include “transparency”, “simplicity” and “empowerment”. All of these terms have profound implications for how and if cultural values should be translated into customer service policies, processes and protocols. The questions are: “Is there alignment between our cultural values and how we operate on a daily basis?”; and, “How do we know?”.

This connection between cultural values and the customer experience is often tenuous and rarely managed. However, culture must be operationalized and managed each and every day or the organization will evolve its own culture in ways that management may not like. Understanding the touchpoints between culture and customer service is critical to creating consistency and alignment between the two. Successful CEOs are taking steps to make these connections very tangible. For example, CFE Federal Credit Union is engaged in a comprehensive program to streamline and simplify many of its operating processes that impact its members. According to CEO Kevin Miller, “One of my goals as CEO has been to create a more empowered culture at CFE. Through our Continuous Improvement process, we have solicited feedback from employees credit union-wide to find ways to streamline our processes and make ourselves easier to do business with. Through these suggestions, we are able to focus on what really matters: our members.”

Determine Culture and Service Connections
The first step to ensuring alignment is to perform an honest, objective and thorough assessment of the company’s cultural pronouncements relative to its day-to-day operating environment. This is a detailed but straightforward process. There are a number of ways to perform this initial assessment, but one easy method is to construct a simple matrix with key cultural components listed on one axis and major customer service issues or categories on the other. These categories might include areas such as account opening and maintenance, loan application and decisioning, funds availability and check hold policies, fee waiver procedures, problem resolution and many others. Then, just identify which cultural components should be reflected in which customer service category. This simple, high level analysis creates focus to drive a deeper assessment of each individual customer service element and process.

Analyze Processes, Procedures and Protocols
The next step is hard, but necessary – mapping each major member/customer service process and determining if there is alignment between cultural principles and operating procedures. Adding complexity is the need to assess interactions through multiple delivery channels. For example, let’s say that one of the institution’s guiding cultural principles is “We build deep relationships by providing individualized solutions delivered through experienced and empowered employees”. There’s a lot to unpack here, but the operative words are “relationships”, “individualized”, and “empowered”. In the initial analysis we probably identified that all three of these concepts could (or should) impact our fee waiver policies and processes. Moreover we determined that these interactions generally take place in the branches or through the call center. A detailed mapping and assessment of the actual fee waiver process will determine if alignment actually exists. Key questions are “Do we make fee waiver decisions based on a thorough understanding of the customer relationship” and “who is empowered to make policy exceptions and when?” The end result will be a thorough and detailed description of the desired customer experience across all types of interactions and through each delivery channel.

Rolland Johannsen has more than 40 years of experience in financial services.

Create Rigorous and Consistent Management Systems
The final step is to develop and deploy systemic management processes that monitor and measure actual performance relative to defined expectations. There are many ways to measure service quality and performance. The key is determining the right things to measure and ensuring that metrics reflect our cultural priorities. These focused and informed management systems help create consistent performance across the organization, focus attention on the most critical elements of the service promise, and highlight ongoing improvement opportunities.

Creating a strong connection between cultural values, operating processes, and management oversight will transform “culture” and “service” from talking points into a competitive weapon. Assuring that there is alignment between cultural principles and day-to-day operating reality will reinforce cultural values by making them tangible and help create an environment in which individual customer service decisions are made consistent with cultural expectations.