How Organizational Culture Drives Customer ServiceIf you’ve ever had skin problems you know that often the cause has nothing to do with the external environment. More often than not bad skin reflects something wrong within the body. Maybe it’s a food allergy, maybe an infection, maybe something else.

Skin is often the first indicator something is wrong.

The same is true for business.

When something is wrong in an organization’s customer service, it almost always reflects a problem in their organizational culture.

And the reverse is true. Organizations with gold star customer service almost always have amazing organizational cultures.

The problem is, often when customer service issues arise, the first place leadership looks to blame the problem is at that front surface line. But blemishes don’t start at skin level, they start deeper.

Organizations with poor customer service need to have an inside-out strategy to solve them.

The Publix Difference

I love Maine, but one thing I miss terribly is Publix.

When I lived in Florida, Publix was my go-to. I’d drive past other stores to go there and even slightly adjust my eating habits to not need anything Publix didn’t carry.

I adore Publix, much more than any of its higher-end “speciality” peers.


Not only do they offer me an extraordinary customer service experience, they manage to do so consistently in every employee interaction. Every time.

Anyone who is lucky enough to live in a place with a Publix knows what I’m talking about.

Customer Service, the Publix Way

Despite having more than 1,200 stores and close to 200,000 employees, Publix maintains a consistent brand personality in everything they do and through every customer touchpoint.

When I go to Publix I know:

  • I’ll be greeted and spoken to by almost every staff member I encounter.
  • When I have a slightly confused look on my face, (which, let’s be honest, happens often) a team member will appear almost out of nowhere and ask if I need help.
  • I’ll see at least one manager out on the floor. They are actively engaged and aware of everything going on.
  • They will always ask to take my items out for me. I always turn them down due to some sort of inexplicable sense of self-reliance it takes away from me, but they’ll offer.
  • If there is a product they don’t have which I’d like, they will do their best to get it for me or start to carry it.

I also know that Publix works hard to carry local goods, along with name brands…so I can feel good about shopping there while supporting my local community.

These all may seem like small things. They don’t change the quality of the food or save me money. They do help me walk away from the store with an overall good impression after every visit.

So what’s the difference?

Your Employees are Customers, Too

How does Publix achieve this consistent level of service and quality communication with their customers while their competitors fall short?

Especially when they pull from the same hiring pool?

The main difference lies in their internal communication and culture.

The way Publix treats their employees and makes them feel, is what defines their brand. AND what creates an extraordinary customer experience.

  • They promote from within. No really, they do. While this is something a lot of companies like to boast about, Publix really does. Their current CEO started as a bagger and is just one of many in top leadership that started at the very bottom.
  • Along with a growing list of other companies, Publix offers a tuition reimbursement plan. Invest in your employees future so they’ll invest in yours.
  • The call their employees “associates” to verbal denote their importance to the Publix family. Words matter. And this little change makes a difference in how all team members see themselves, how people see and treat them internally, and how customers see and treat them.
  • They are the largest employee-owned company. So the mere structure of the organization speaks to the importance of their employees.

Internal communications WILL ALWAYS reflect on external communications.

Year-after-year, Publix has been rated one of the top companies to work for, and when you read why, you consistently hear phrases such as, “treated like a family,” “part of the company,” “hard work rewarded,” and “ability to move up.”

In an industry where the average turnover rate is 65 percent, Publix boasts an (unheard of) five percent.

They have changed the game and created an environment where every associate stops seeing their positions as “jobs,” and start seeing them as “careers”.

Respect Drives Productivity in a Successful Organizational Culture

It’s basic human psychology.

You care more about doing your best if you see your position as a stepping stone to something. You work harder when you are treated with respect and as part of something vs. treated as just a worker.

Ownership and respect are two of the most important things a good organizational culture cultivates.

Almost everyone initially goes to work wanting to do a good job. It’s the organization’s duty to both empower and provide the tools for them to do so.

It’s important to remember your employees are your customers as well. They pay with one of the most valuable commodity we as humans have — our time.

Every business leader worried about poor customer service levels should first evaluate, “Where is the real customer service problem?”

A rotting root will never yield a hearty or beautiful flower. Check your organizational culture.

Customer Service Doesn’t Always Face Outward

How provide employees what they need to be successful brand ambassadors (which translates into quality customer service)?

After all, in most cases, they are the first, and only, touch point your customers have with your brand.

Evaluate the following:

  • How do we treat employees? As they are or as they could be?
  • How have we messaged role descriptions? Are they written to reflect the type of respect, responsibility, and service to which we aspire?
  • How do we talk to employees on a daily basis? As peers?
  • Do our employees understand the company vision? Values? Brand message?
  • Have we provided a clear career path? Do employees understand the rewards that accompany high-quality work?
  • Do the position goals we set for employees align with the service goals we hope to provide?
  • How do we encourage ownership among every employee?

And then ask your team these same questions directly.

You will most likely find the answers your employees give to how they feel—in relation to the company—reflect almost identically those of your customers.

Improve the relationship you have with your internal customers, and you’ll also improve the relationship with your external ones.

Laura Petrolino

Laura Petrolino is chief marketing officer for Spin Sucks, an integrated marketing communications firm that provides strategic counsel and professional development for in-house and agency communications teams. She is a weekly contributor for their award-winning blog of the same name. Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.

View all posts by Laura Petrolino