Political systems are not the only complex systems that can harden themselves against the people they’re designed to serve. Companies, too, can become disconnected from the humanity of their customers, often without even realizing it. This makes service difficult to provide, much less service excellence. In my experience, a key responsibility of managers is to actively fight this type of “calcification” by shaping the mental models that guide employee behavior.
I find David Neeleman, former CEO of JetBlue, to be a helpful role model. Mr. Neeleman would fly JetBlue at least once a month, working as a flight attendant, meeting customers, modeling the unscripted norms he wanted everyone else to embody. He found that once a month was about the right frequency to ensure that employee attitudes towards customers were resilient enough to withstand the calcification pull. I have seen many service slogans at companies, often variations on the “customer is always right.” My advice is to modify this to the “customer is always human” and find ways to make this mental model a central tenet of an organization’s culture. It’s an investment that will improve service at least as much as the best of training programs.