Change Your Cultural Story, Change Your Corporate Results

In the course of working as a consultant to mend corporate cultures (I’m a consultant on company culture and the customer experience and service)  I see a lot of universal mistakes. (In other words: Unhappy companies are often unhappy in similar ways and for similar reasons, Tolstoy notwithstanding.)

The happy part of this means that there are some universal solutions as well.

Let’s look at a cultural problem (and solution) that applies equally to the customer experience and to patient satisfaction in a hospital or other healthcare environment.

But first: What is the point of a mistake? What do you do with it?

I want to ask a question first: What do you do with a mistake? What, to put it a bit oddly, is the point of making a mistake?

The ideal thing to do with a business mistake is to learn to fix the system that lies behind the mistake.  And to learn while fixing the system, as the knowledge you gain there is often applicable to other fixes you’ll soon find you need.

It’s an employee, by and large, who makes the mistake.  But it’s not an employee, by and large, who is behind the mistake.  The system (even if, sadly, sometimes the problematic system is your hiring process), lies behind the mistake.

Systematic storytelling

Now, sometimes, a “system” doesn’t look very systems-like.  Stories, for example, are systems.

In each of the two examples below, what was the system behind the mistake?  In each case, the problem is, in essence, a system of stories, or, really, a lack of systematic storytelling.  Letting the wrong stories dominate in your organization. The stories that should be told around your organization should be about moments where  you found a way to do something extra for a customer (or patient), not the moments where a customer (or patient) “pulled a fast one” and took something as a customer that they weren’t entitled to.

Retail Tales

I was working with a retail organization recently where the company leadership had a sincere desire for employees to treat customers well, to treat them generously. [Note: Details here are, of course, disguised for discretion.]

However, the company CEO, who was also the founder, didn’t realize that she was sabotaging this at every step.  How?  With war story after war story — colorful, well-told, but still — about how this customer or that had ripped her off at one point, kited a check, tried to get two for one, had asked for a discount they didn’t deserve.

The CEO is a great woman. And generous, personally, to a fault.  But these episodes have rankled her in her career, and as a result she vocally shares her frustration.  Which means that the green employees she hires only hear these stories, and think “boy, I better not let any customer get away with anything.” 

Which is exactly the wrong attitude to spread unless you’re a bank auditor.

The company’s core mission — building customer loyalty – just won’t get through if it has to fight against such odds.

Stories matter.  And that’s what was you need to fix here.

One of the clearest gauges of your company culture is how your employees act with customers  when you’re not around.  Sometimes, of course, employees willfully avoid acting the way you want them to, especially when you’re not looking. This happens to companies with weak cultures.  If people were only hired by you for technical skills or because they look the part or because they’re cheap; if they only do your bidding because of intimidation, if you don’t treat them fairly as an employer, then the moment you’re out of the shop is the moment when things will fall apart.

But the problem we’re talking about today is different. It’s the problem of employees who want to do their very best, but who misunderstand their mission. I think this kind of well-intentioned but off the mark behavior is responsible for as many business errors as the willful, intentionally destructive kind.

The solution has a variety of parts, but all of them — for example updating your onboarding process and training, empowering your employees to assist customers, or better defining standards throughout the company — lead ultimately in one direction: fixing the stories a company tells to its employees, and the stories, even more importantly, that they tell to themselves.


Get the good stories in the air early in your organizational history. 

Culture matters.  And stories are one of the ways you get there.  Get the good stories in the air early–if possible, at your startup or microbusiness stage. It will save you time, heartache later.  Less war, more peace.

Micah Solomon is is a customer service consultant, corporate culture consultant, trainer, and bestselling author.