Competitive Edge Getting Dull? “Sharpen it with Creativity!” says Customer Care Expert

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In a global, experience-based economy, service innovation is more important than ever, says customer care expert JoAnna Brandi. She explains how to build and sustain a competitive edge by creating an organizational culture where everyone's invited to be creative about service.

Do you routinely encourage absurdity? Let people know they're safe to question the norm, suggest the unusual? Do you set aside time to work on your challenges and tap the brainpower of all your team members? Do you honor ideas? According to Customer Care Coach® Publisher JoAnna Brandi, if you’re not, you could be developing “hardening of the categories” – and in danger of losing your competitive edge.

Brandi explains, “Hardening of the categories occurs in organizations where they’re inflexible, complacent and satisfied with the ordinary -- where they operate from preconceived notions and assumptions. These businesses get stuck on the way they’ve always done things, and start focusing on what can't be done instead of what’s possible.

“The result: Your service goes stale while competitors creating fresh new service innovations attract your best employees and precious customers. Companies that accept service innovation to be as critical as product innovation are setting themselves up to succeed for the long haul.”

Why? Brandi says that a global, experience-based economy coupled with unprecedented, accelerated change are forcing companies to anticipate customers’ needs by looking at them from all-new vantage points – and then be flexible and brave enough to go the extra mile to be different. “Companies have to think not only outside the box, but as if the box never existed in the first place,” she says.

According to Brandi, innovative corporate cultures that can anticipate and meet customer needs are known for being curious, inquisitive, appreciative and playful. She explains that creativity grows out of a culture that is not afraid to be absurd or challenge the status quo, is willing to be wrong and that nurtures questioning – and it thrives in a company that’s committed to continuous improvement and learning.

But such cultures don’t spring up overnight, and she says they don’t happen at all if managers don’t nurture a culture where it’s safe to be a little crazy. Brandi offers three tips to help managers heal hardening categories in their companies and start building creative, profitable corporate cultures:

1)    Set aside time for creativity. Ideally, you want to do this quarterly, outside of the office, and you want to hire someone to facilitate the sessions so that the managers can fully participate. ‘Limber up’ by brainstorming about silly things: See how many uses you can come up with for a brick, tea bag, or anything not related to work. When everyone’s warmed up, kick into high gear with crazy, no restrictions brainstorming on ways to improve your customer care. Remember the rules: All ideas are good ideas at this phase, and judgment, killer phrases (“it’s not in the budget”) and killer looks (armed crossed, mouth twisted, head shaking) are not allowed. You’re looking for quantity here. After lunch, sort through those ideas, combine them in different ways and start developing workable, doable plans.

2)    Start an ‘Idea of the Month Club.’ Get everyone into the practice of questioning or looking at things differently, using questions like, “How can I make this better? How can we improve the customer experience at this touch point? How can I create more value? How can I do my job better?” Offer a monetary reward for the ideas that are selected for action. Or offer a small monetary reward for all the ideas and deliver it in cash. You’ll be amazed at what people will come up with if you focus their attention on “How can I make it better?” and then reward them for their efforts. The first time you get an idea that saves the company thousands of dollars (and you will) you’ll know this kind of program pays for itself.

3)    Invest in creativity. There are fabulous books, products, cards, games and activities out there to help you break out of ‘normal’ thinking patterns. Build a wonderful library of tools for your company. Google the word “creativity” and have fun following the links wherever they take you. Find resources to support you.

“If necessity is the mother of invention, I’d guess the father is curiosity, absurdity, dissatisfaction, playfulness, consideration, imagination, or any number of qualities that aren’t typically a part of standard business models,” says Brandi. “In most companies, marketing and research get to be creative while the rest of us wait to hear from them. Let’s break out of the old molds and make ‘creative flow’ a standard part of our organizational cultures!”

To subscribe to Brandi’s f#ee, bi-weekly newsletter, visit http://www.customercarecoach.com. To find out if your customer care is exquisite, take her QUIZ at http://www.customercarecoach.com/public/quiz.asp

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