The notion or nobleness of a “value’ is often maligned by people or brands who use it to substantiate a self-serving, nice-sounding perspective or stance, whilst their behaviour proves the opposite.

Just think of the many times you’ve phoned a call centre, frustrated with non-delivery, only to get even more livid when forced to endure “Your call is important to us” for what feels like hours. Clearly, the organisation’s notion of “important” is either very different to that of most others, or more likely, they actually don’t give a damn. Made even worse when said organisation advertises how they put customers at the core of everything they do. If you’re like me, it’d be less irritating if the message was honest, like “We care about our customers, but unfortunately don’t have the funds to appoint more call centre agents. We’ll be with you as soon as humanly possible. Thanks for your patience”… or something along those lines.

Or if they had the financial means, and truly ‘valued’ customer service, they’d do everything to ensure your call IS answered within seconds, by smart humans empowered to solve your problem and give you a better brand experience.

Values are often used as manipulative tactics to influence our initial response from “wrong” to giving the other party the “benefit of doubt”. A perfect case in point is the ongoing data debacle. We so badly want to believe in Google’s early mantra of “Do no evil”, or Facebook’s mission to “give people the power to build communities and bring the world closer together”, that we continue to provide yet more personal data, despite hard evidence that our data was sold to the likes of Cambridge Analytica for “doing evil” and “dividing the world”.

It comes down to behaviour, not empty words
Bringing intangible values to (tangible) life is a trade-exchange. If we truly value something, we need to be willing to give up something else (we value) in exchange. Be it time, money, prerogatives or ego – it’s what we sacrifice that reveals what our values truly are. In the Google or Facebook instance, it would have meant organisational greed needed to be sacrificed in order to honour an ethical promise to customers.

To illustrate on a personal level, imagine if one of my values is curiosity, and I get into a debate with someone. I’ll have to sacrifice my natural tendency to win or ‘be right’ if I’m truly sincere about learning new things and wanting to better understand the world and consider others’ perspectives.

In business, it starts with one thing… ‘culture’
When it comes to business, values mean diddles unless they are lived and delivered on every day, both internally and externally, by everyone in the organisation. Which relies on a single factor … you guessed it: culture. Research shows that organisational culture is a primary driver of employee behaviour (and playout), which is primarily shaped by the leaders.

Using Red & Yellow as my first example (for obvious reasons), we have 7 values which shape how we behave and what we expect from ourselves, our students, and everyone we interact with. They are displayed on our walls, listed on our website, mentioned in every internal meeting – not because they ‘sound’ good .. but because they truly define what our brand and our people stand for, and provide an objective framework for ensuring all decisions are based on ‘principle’, not a ‘person’.

On the polar opposite, Enron is a terrifying example of the consequence of reassuring promises, devoid of any intention to deliver. Despite their motto of “Respect, Integrity, Communication and Excellence”, and vision statement of “We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves … We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment” – they acted the exact opposite. Senior leadership created a culture of greed that encouraged unethical behaviour and criminal activities.

Whereas Zappos is renowned for its ethical culture. Their exceptional customer service stems from 10 core values – the one I love most is “create fun and a little weirdness”.

A personal experience of culture’s power
I’m grateful for a career-path that has consistently involved working for companies that are purpose-driven; with visionary, inspiring leaders at the helm. One that stands out is 20twenty – South Africa’s first online-only bank. Started by a non-banker who saw the potential of technology to disrupt the hold that the ‘big 4’ traditional banks had on the market, and level the playing fields.

Christo Davel, the visionary founder and leader, cultivated a culture around a single-minded purpose – transforming banking from an onerous, grudge chore into a delightful experience. With the customer at the core. Literally.

Conversations, projects and decisions weren’t driven by ‘this is how things have always worked’ or ‘we have a great idea’ … everything centred around a customer-first strategy. What did they want? Would add real value to their experience? How could we fix their pain-points?

Everyone believed deeply in the mission to change the (banking) world. Coders would work through the night, and when you commiserated with them the next morning, they’d respond with excitement about what they’d achieved, rather than “poor-me”.

Sadly, 20twenty was only around for a few short years due to two key reasons. The first was that it was an idea ahead of its time. And the second was outside of its control (too long to explain here). But what is important was how customers responded when the bank was forced to suspend its service. They printed T-shirts, created fan clubs, had rallies and offered to pay higher fees if this would mean we could start trading again. Hello? Customers that not only loved their bank (unheard of), but wanted to pay more (don’t be ridiculous)?

I agree – now what?
If this strikes a chord inside you, watch out for part 2 in April, where we explore the 4 critical focus areas for creating a values-led culture. Even if you don’t have the power right now to effect change, you could always share with your boss as a nudge in the right direction.:)

Or if you are able to influence small shifts in the right direction, you might want to consider taking our People Management or Digital Consumer Marketing online short course to learn different techniques of approach and practical skills to help you start the journey.

More about the article author: Heléne is our Head fo Customer. After many, many years in agencies working on most of the major brands, and some interesting start-ups, she crossed over to academia, thinking it would be quieter. Wrong!
She is a passionate consumer advocate, staunch critic of brands that under-deliver and Bedlington Terriers