The past few days, I've been thinking about the stark contrast in messages between a recent talk by Christian Vanek, co-founder of Boulder's SurveyGizmo, and Greg Smith's now infamous New York Times Op-Ed piece about his departure from Goldman Sachs. The difference in messages should serve as a lesson in the importance of customer service. The lesson is far from new, but is one that applies just as much today in a world swimming in internet startups as it did when Goldman Sachs was founded in 1869.  

I attended the Boulder Startup Meetup last week where Christian Vanek was the keynote speaker. About six years ago, Christian founded SurveyGizmo with Scott McDaniel. By most measures, SurveyGizmo is a success, now employing ~50 employees and turning a decent profit. Christian gave an entertaining presentation and walked through a series of myths and truths about starting a business. A major point Christian emphasized was the essential and critical role customer service has played in their success. To build their business, SurveyGizmo has relied almost exclusively on word-of-mouth. Customer service is one of their key discriminators. They know it and, most importantly, embrace and nurture it.

"Treat your customers like royalty and your employees like volunteers."
- Christian Vanek, co-founder SurveyGizmo

Now, consider Goldman Sachs. I'm skeptical enough to believe that reality may not be as harsh as Greg Smith's portrayal would have us think. Even when I've worked in organizations numbering in the few tens, I've seen some pretty different views of the same events or decisions. Goldman Sachs posted their corporate response to Smith's piece the same day and included the proud claim that "89 percent of [employees] said that the firm provides exceptional service to [our clients]." 

What's interesting to me about Goldman Sachs' response is that it does not take on any specific assertions and is limited to an internal view rather than also including an external client view. Granted, most of Smith's grenades speak to deterioration of the internal culture. But each one of these, if true, ultimately damages the client-first mindset upon which Goldman-Sachs built its business. If the truth lies anywhere between what their website response contends and what Smith portrays, then I would say there's a pretty big issue needing serious attention.

Justin Fox's HBR blog essay digs deeper into what might be going on and has the benefit of being a bit more detached in its analysis. The article is worth a read. Fox puts forth several causes for a cultural change at Goldman Sachs including: the transition from partnership to publicly traded corporation in 1999; the excess profits to be made in the over-the-counter derivative markets; and the unintended and toxic consequences of creating a super-expert culture. 

Of course, it is orders of magnitude easier to shape and maintain culture when you are a 50 employee privately-held company than it is when you are a 30,000 employee publicly-traded corporation.

So, here are a couple unsolicited ideas for Goldman Sachs. First, assign a team to work with SurveyGizmo to create a targeted survey that will unlock new insights into how your employees and clients really view the organization. Then, and better yet, send some executives to SurveyGizmo's Boulder offices for a week and simply observe. It will be a refreshing, customer-oriented experience and may help you get back to your roots. 

3/20/2012 11:32:36 pm

Do you mean Greg Smith?

3/21/2012 03:32:36 am

Thanks, JEHR! You are certainly correct. Must have had a brain lock on another Greg Olsen I know. Blog has been corrected.

10/4/2013 09:53:53 pm

Good eye my friend :)

5/17/2012 01:15:12 am

SurveyGizmo is really doing their job well. I watched as they relate to the service and you are right that they really know the best approach to the client.

9/23/2013 04:56:52 am

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7/4/2012 01:21:11 pm

I created a weebly blog after seeing how simple it looked.

8/16/2013 08:06:32 pm

Great Blog title about customer service !Of course, it is orders of magnitude easier to shape and maintain culture when you are a 50 employee privately-held company than it is when you are a 30,000 employee publicly-traded corporation.

9/5/2013 02:11:53 pm

I had no idea it was so easy to create a free blog here at Weebly, thanks.


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