I must have looked lost as I was meandering down the food aisle at a Publix Super Market. As I was unsuccessfully trying to pick up a few items off my “honey do” list from the grocery store, I heard the words from a friendly Publix employee, “Can I help you find something?” I was a little caught off guard because I couldn’t remember the last time I was asked in a grocery store if I needed some help with my shopping. I was prepared for some directions on where I could find the missing item; but instead, the employee insisted on retrieving the product for me while I continued my shopping. WOW! I was blown away. As a business coach and consultant, I take note of great service. I was also intrigued. What kind of organization was this with employees who were so passionate about customer service? As I was in the checkout line, I shared my positive experience with the checkout clerk (who was also very friendly). I asked to speak to the manager of the store so I could report this excellent customer service.
I learned a lot in my brief exchange with the store manager. This young man shared with me that this was normal behavior for their employees. I learned that he had been with the company for over twenty years and started as a part time employee in high school bagging groceries. As I pressed in for the secret sauce to the great service, he pointed my attention to their secret – THE CULTURE! He shared with me how important the company’s culture is and how much attention they pay to cultivating and reinforcing it throughout the organization. The focus on culture has paid off for Lakeland, Florida based Publix. It is the largest and fastest growing employee owned super market in the country. With over $27 billion in sales, 1,056 stores, and 157,000 employees, Publix is ranked 106 on the Fortune 500. What caught my attention though was that the company had been on FORTUNE magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” for over 16 years.
Publix’s emphasis on its culture dates back to 1930 and the company’s founder George Jenkins. Jenkins held himself to the high standards he expected of others and created a culture of service “not only to the customer who came into the store to shop, but to every associate as a customer of another associate.” Jenkins and other leaders believed that “people want to help, and, if given the resources to do so will provide extraordinary service.” One of the ways they create such loyalty is by promoting from within. The current CEO and President each started out in Publix as front-service clerks over 25 years ago. I also took note that, the average tenure at Publix for store managers is 25.1 years, retail hourly workers average about 5.1 years, and hourly support workers average about 9.1 years.
As I have studied companies like Publix, I have become convinced that building a great culture is absolutely one of the keys to building a great company. It is particularly important for any company that wants to grow and expand with people. For some, talk about culture may sound “soft” or of secondary importance. These type naysayers may believe that having a great culture is a “nice to have” versus a “must have.” Very few companies can afford to ignore their company culture. If your company involves people interacting with people, then you should be paying attention to your culture.
For definitional purposes, I describe a company’s culture as the shared values and practices of the people in the organization. These are the common beliefs and habits of the organization. Here is the critical part – your employees represent YOUR BRAND. They are the living, breathing implementers day to day of what your company stands for. In other words, they are the front line in creating your brand in the marketplace. Companies can spend millions on positive advertising but one bad interaction with a representative can destroy the customer’s feelings about the company.
I was attending a conference at the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans recently, and as I was leaving a member of the housekeeping staff stopped me on my way to the elevator and wanted to make sure I had enjoyed a great stay at the hotel and wished me safe travels on my journey home. She did not have to do that. It was probably not part of her job description. However, with a smile and genuine sincerity she made a point to wish me well on my way. I have shared with dozens of people about this simple exchange and how that positively reflects on the brand of The Ritz Carlton.
Gregg Lederman, founder of Brand!ntegrity and author of the book entitled Engaged! Outbehave Your Competition to Create Customers for Life, travels the country helping companies realize the value of culture and how important it is in developing their brands. He notes, “Branding is not part of the business, it is the business. Every interaction with an employee, with a coworker or a customer has the power to strengthen or hinder the brand image of your company.” Lederman emphasizes that branding is about experiences and not logos and taglines. He teaches companies that the little things that they do daily are more important than the big things they may say about themselves. I believe and share with my clients that every day their doors are open is “Game Day,” and they should treat it with the opportunity for greatness. Unfortunately, for too many companies it becomes like “Groundhog Day,” and mediocrity can creep in.
I recently discovered Lederman’s company and work, and I have been impressed. In addition to his thought leadership on this subject, his company has come up with something truly unique in my opinion. They have created a proprietary software system that actually allows companies to better manage their brand by tracking and measuring customer satisfaction, employee engagement, and financial results. What they have accomplished is the linking together of these critical aspects of the business in a quantifiable way that encourages the right behaviors. This use of metrics and creative ways to reinforce positive behaviors strengthens and builds the culture, and it is all tied back to the company’s profitability. I believe in the future we will see more and more organizations focused on building powerful brands, and I think we should all start to consider what is our R.O.C. – Return on Culture.