06/27/2012 03:30 EDT | Updated 08/27/2012 05:12 EDT

Twenty-Nine Years Later, Here's What I Know About Customer Service

It's fair to say I've been living and breathing customer service for the better part of three decades.

I've worked at TD Canada Trust for 29 years, where I started out as a part-time teller. Everybody knows what a teller does, and I tried hard to best serve my customers quickly and ably.

Despite all the customer service trends and fads over the years, in my experience there's one lesson that's rung most true: At the end of the day, people don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. (Yes, believe it or not, there are bankers who care.) To create a culture where customer service guides business decisions, actually caring about customer service has to be the point of entry.

It must be "lived" from the top of the house, encouraged and rewarded through hiring decisions, training programs and incentive structures throughout the organization, and embraced by individuals in the organization on a personal level. Real, operationalized, and personal -- that's the trifecta of creating a customer service culture that flows from the top down and right back up.

As with any strategic priority in business, if customer service isn't championed from the top, it's going nowhere. The CEO must be the chief customer service officer, and every business decision must run through a filter where the customer experience is top of mind. In short, it has to be at the core of corporate strategy, making it clear to your customers and employees how you compete, whether it's through longer business hours, new platforms to maximize convenience, service innovation, or all of the above.

At the same time, you must create a work environment where all employees are encouraged to engage, and feel empowered to contribute. Ultimately, this means asking them to challenge you if you're going in a direction that is not right for your customers. There should be checks and balances at all levels of the organization. If the leadership team proves to make a bad call -- and we all know that happens -- then course-correct.

There's no shame in reversing a decision when the end goal is clear to everyone in the organization. It actually validates your strategy. Nothing is more sacred when you consider that your employee brand is, in fact, your customer brand.

It's also critical that customer service become the litmus test for employee hiring, professional development, and rewards and incentives. Compensation should be tied to both the individual and the overall organization's service performance. Measure your service level by directly asking your customers what they think. In our case, we ask them more than that -- we want to know not just if we met their needs, but if they'd recommend us to family and friends. It's an investment of time and resources but there's no truer test.

What's equally important is to complement the feedback your customers provide with what your employees know from first-hand experience. Facilitate ways for employees to suggest improvements and eliminate the unintended "dumb stuff" that can be inside any organization -- complex processes and red tape that hinder a positive customer experience.

As a business leader, the most personally satisfying part of fostering a customer service culture is the spontaneous acts of caring that employees demonstrate of their own volition. Over the years, I've encountered thousands of stories that simply fill my heart with pride. These stories involve emotional connections with customers, help in times of need, and are most often, simple acts of kindness.

There isn't a corporate policy or training program on this kind of stuff. If you empower employees to go above and beyond, they will. Just one example that comes to mind is a story of branch employees in London. One branch employee noticed a young boy trying to deposit his savings into his mother's account and took the time to understand more about the family's situation. It turned out that the boy was aware his mother was strained financially and he wanted to give up his savings to help contribute to a Thanksgiving meal.

Inspired by his generosity of spirit, this branch employee quietly went about rallying the entire branch to collect and deliver a turkey and gifts to the family that Thanksgiving. The tradition has continued now for several years. 

Clearly, acts like this fall outside the realm of customer service in the pure business sense. It's an act of caring at a level that simply cannot be mandated. But I would argue that it's part and parcel of having a customer service culture.