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Beware of Zombie Values | Customers, Etc

Beware of Zombie Values | Customers, Etc
By Ben McCormack • Issue #24 • View online
What happens when a list of guiding principles gets abandoned, but not officially retired? You end with zombie values. If you like what you read this week, hit reply and let me know what stood out.

Early in my time at FullStory, we took up an effort to create a Customer’s Bill of Rights. Here’s one: “The customer has a right to a voice & tone befitting the context of the communication.” Befitting the context of the communication? What on earth.
The intentions behind the document were pure. When FullStory was small, it seemed like everyone in the company just “got it” when it came to the customer experience we wanted to deliver. But as we scaled and newer employees joined the ranks faster than they could absorb the culture, we started to notice small cracks in the uniformity of the experience we were delivering to customers. There’d be a tweet from a prospect struggling to get pricing info or an outbound email with stilted, robotic copy. Something was off.
The thinking was that a Customer’s Bill of Rights would be the thing that would uniformly guide customer experience across all touch points of the customer journey. If someone sent a “personal” marketing email without any personalization (ugh), we’d say tisk tisk and remind them that the customer has a right to voice & tone, blah blah blah. That was the theory anyway.
But we wouldn’t know. We never adopted the Customer’s Bill of Rights, in part because it didn’t quite fit, but mostly because we didn’t want to give birth to a collection of zombie values.
Photo by Chris Hall on Unsplash
Photo by Chris Hall on Unsplash
Beware of Zombie Values
As I was socializing the Customer’s Bill of Rights internally, I met with Bruce, one of FullStory’s cofounders, to get his take on where we stood with our document. He had a few concerns.
The first was that it seemed too long. This was supposed to be something an individual contributor could use to guide their day-to-day interactions with customers. It was just too much to internalize. We needed something simple.
The real fear was more serious. If we had adopted the Customer’s Bill of Rights (probably with a Prove-It), it would have become corporate dogma. Yet without action to back them up, the Rights would have faded into the background. That’s how you get zombie values, which manage to live on long after they’ve expired, offering no real influence on the life of the company.
Beyond the Customer Manifesto
I think everyone who has ever endeavored to create a Customer’s Bill of Rights—or Manifesto, Mission Statement, Ten Commandments, etc.—has done so with good intentions. And to be sure, making a cultural commitment as a company is an important step in driving alignment around the customer. Yet it’s nothing without action.
In Chief Customer Officer 2.0, Jeanne Bliss talks about the cultural commitments that businesses make to say they’re focused on the customer. Quoting the book (emphasis in the original):
Customer culture is talked about by many leaders, but misunderstood by most organizations.  A manifesto or commitment is stated, but often people don’t know how to translate those words to their own performance and priorities. “Commitment” to customers is spoken of vaguely, rather than attached to deliberate operational behavior, such as “We will go to market only after these 12 customer requirements are met” or “Every launch must meet these five conditions, which the field requires for success. We won’t launch without them, no exceptions.“
Culture is the action, not the words. It is the consistent behaviors that give people direction on what to model, decisions that are made, and actions that are taken that show that customer commitment is real and not lip service.
How many of us have worked for companies with some sort of stated commitment to customers, but it wasn’t carried out? There’s a document or written statement, sure, but when you look at actual actions, they don’t seem to match what’s supposedly valued. This is how zombie values are born.
Operationalizing the Watchwords
When we decided to can the Customer’s Bill of Rights (I guess you could say it got killed in committee), we wanted to avoid creating zombie values, in part because we already had a list of stated values, our watchwords:
Unlike traditional “corporate value statements” that are too easily forgotten or ignored, our watchwords are meant to be easy to grok so that we can truly put them into practice.
While I had always thought of our watchwords as guiding us internally in a loose way, I started to wonder if they could be “operationalized” in a more concrete fashion. What if, instead of a Bill of Rights, we just used our watchwords? I turned my thinking specifically to the customer support team, which I was leading at the time. Could the work of customer support be boiled down to empathy, clarity, and bionics in a way that moved from words to action?
While the work seems obvious in hindsight, this was uncharted territory at the time. We didn’t have a system for quality assurance (QA) within support, so we had to invent it on our own. And no other team at FullStory was (consciously) operationalizing the watchwords. We had to chart our own path.
What we came up with was a series of questions, particular to support, that we would ask to see if we were being true to our watchwords.
  • Empathy: Are we truly listening to the customer?
  • Clarity: Does our response exude confidence and competence?
  • Bionics: Are we reporting bugs so that the product better supports customers in the future?
We didn’t just put the questions in a document and walk away, returning to them only in reaction to a bad customer email. We baked them into a repeatable process using MaestroQA. This forced us to return to our watchwords week over week and ask if we were being true to empathy, clarity, and bionics.
If you’ll forgive me running a bit long here, the success of this endeavor wasn’t due to a manager reviewing tickets every week (though that was part of it). The real reason this worked was because of peer review. If I noticed that a team member was falling a bit short with one of the watchwords, I’d ask them if they were caught up on peer review. Most of the time, the answer was no. So as a remedy, I would suggest they get caught up. The work of grading a peer’s work in reference to the watchwords forces you to stop and think. The stopping and thinking is what internalizes the values, far more than reviewing notes from a manager.
Preventing Zombie Values
To prevent a list of stated values from becoming zombie values, they need to be:
  1. Simple
  2. Operationalized
They should be simple enough that anyone at the company can internalize them, and they need to be operationalized, put into action in a way that reinforces them in day-to-day work.
When everyone in the company does this in their respective roles, this leads to a consistently reliable customer experience, strengthening the company’s brand.
For a deep dive into how we implemented the watchwords in customer support at FullStory, check out my talk with MaestroQA: In Defense of Brand
If you want to dive deep about how to operationalize company values, check out the book Disney U by Doug Lipp. I read Disney U as I was working on the Customer’s Bill of Rights. Reading about how Disney applied their values (their “keys”) to guide a new retail store experience was a lightbulb moment for me. This is what drove me to wonder if we could do the same thing with FullStory watchwords in customer support.
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Ben McCormack

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