Small Business Spotlight: Your Values Determine Your Loyalty and Your Longevity

By Robert Spector


After two decades of writing books, delivering keynotes, conducting workshops and exchanging ideas on customer service with an assortment of businesses ranging from car washing to cloud hosting, I belief in one immutable truth: While a company’s success is shaped by its practices, its longevity is determined by its values.

Practices (strategies, product offerings, etc.) inevitably change over time; values (standards of behavior) must never change. Values define who you are as an organization. You must adapt your practices to market conditions in order to stay competitive. But if you compromise your values, you will impair your organization and imperil your viability.

Values determine the kind of customer service you will give, not only to your external customers, but also to your stakeholders: co-workers, partners, vendors and communities (both virtual and literal).

Nordstrom and its culture have fascinated me for more than 30 years. I’ve written four books on this Seattle retailing icon, whose unwavering adherence to its core values is the primary reason why, after 114 years in business, Nordstrom continues to be the gold standard in customer service.

As mentioned above, I speak all over the world about customer service. There are many other fine authors and speakers and consultants on customer service. We all give valuable, useful advice and ideas. We see the men and women in our audiences nodding approvingly to our common-sense wisdom. Many people are inspired and motivated to go back to their offices and begin to make the necessary changes. They’ve told me that they are going to do whatever takes to improve their service. (I have witnesses.)

But after that initial rush of inspiration, most organizations revert to business as usual. They may continue to talk about the importance of customer service to their team, but they rarely follow-through because more immediate issues take priority.

When it comes to the subject of customer service, everyone knows the words; they just don’t know the tune.

Your values help you learn the tune and stay on key.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”

― Mahatma Gandhi

What is the destiny of your organization?

I’m not talking just about your projected sales figures. I’m also talking about your principled purpose, and how you attract and keep the right people in order to achieve both means and meaning.

“Culture trumps strategy,” says Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks. “You need strategy and execution, but if you’re not aligned with shared values, that is not sustainable.”

In preparation for a new series of industry-specific guidebooks based on my study of Nordstrom, my business partner breAnne Reeves and I re-read the respective memoirs of members of the first three generations of the Nordstrom family:

· The Immigrant in 1887 by John W. Nordstrom, who scored enough money in the 1896 Yukon Gold Rush to open a shoe store in downtown Seattle in 1901

· A Winning Team by Elmer J. Nordstrom, who with his two brothers created the biggest independent shoe retailer in the United States by the mid-1960s

· Leave It Better Than You Found It by Bruce A. Nordstrom, who along with three cousins created the Nordstrom model we know today. Bruce’s sons Blake, Peter and Erik, and their cousin Jamie of the fourth generation, lead the company today

We also revisited all the books that I have written about the company.

As we reviewed those books, we identified and compiled a list of the values that Nordstrom has always adhered to through four generations of family leadership. The company is guided by a dedication to an honest and ethical way of doing business that helps to deliver compelling value (in the commercial sense) to their customers and a positive workplace for their employees.

Whatever industry your company is in, you will optimize your strategies when they are supported and sustained by foundational values that guide you in evaluating every new potential hire.

“People always ask me, how do you teach core values? The answer is, you don’t,” writes James Collins, co-author of Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. “The goal is not to get people to share your core values. It’s to get people who already share your core values.”

These are the Nordstrom core values:

1. Respect

A belief in basic human dignity. Respect and courtesy for employees, co-workers, suppliers and, of course, customers. Appreciation for the role that all of those people play in your life and in your success.

2. Trust

Trust is the glue that holds together all relationships. It is the certain belief in the reliability, ability and strength of the people you work with. Empowerment is a byproduct of trust.

3. Communication and Collaboration

You can’t have one without the other. When colleagues and customers communicate (about good news and bad news) and work together, you will have a meaningful partnership based on shared goals and win-win outcomes.

4. Awareness

Does everyone in your company have their heads up — literally and figuratively? Are they paying attention? Are they alert to the needs of colleagues and customers? Companies with values attract men and women who operate with a sense of mindfulness and purpose.

5. Competition and Compensation

Nordstrom has always used competition — both internal and external — to move the organization forward. Nordstrom is a company of entrepreneurs who work to make money for themselves, their colleagues, and their company.

6. Innovation and Adaptation

Nordstrom is not the same company today that it was five years ago. It will be a different company five years from now. The retailer stays relevant by adjusting to changes in the marketplace. Nordstrom embraces technology to make life easier for their customers and more lucrative for their employees.

7. Selflessness

Be thoughtful and generous toward the people you work with. It will pay dividends every day. If your employees are happy then your customers will be happy. As a business, neighbor and citizen, you should be dedicated to finding ways to contribute to the common good.

8. Loyalty

The Nordstroms will tell you that loyalty is earned, not expected. Loyalty — to colleagues and customers — is the byproduct of respect, recognition, and reward for a job well done. Loyalty helps to create a bond and allegiance that gets you through the inevitable challenging times.

9. Fun

When I ask successful Nordstrom salespeople what they like about working for the retailer, their answer always includes “having fun.” Fun is about winning, making customers happy, enjoying co-workers, and being respected, trusted, and compensated accordingly. Most of us spend at least a third of our lives on the job. Let’s have fun!

“We are here to help everyone achieve his or her goals,” says chairman emeritus Bruce Nordstrom. “Companies that have a strong culture have an asset; a point of difference. We try to create an atmosphere where people feel valued, trusted, respected, and empowered, where they have a proprietary feeling and an entrepreneurial spirit.”

What are your company’s values?

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