Purpose – Headquarters managers of a medium-sized manufacturing company initiated a culture change in five of their dispersed wholesale units. The aim was for more external service quality. This paper aims to report the results of a test of three hypotheses, shedding light on the behavior of the involved agents. The hypotheses are rooted in the change management literature. Design/methodology/approach – The present study rests both on quantitative (survey) and qualitative (interviews) field data collected in two discrete phases over 3.5 years and obtained from the operational employees. The authors use their quantitative survey data to examine agentic explanations for the failed change; their qualitative data corroborated the findings. Findings – No culture change or service improvement was detected. Despite the fact that local change agents were not the initiators or owners of the intended change, employee satisfaction with the local change agents (situated in the service units) was found to explain variance in the culture and climate scores. The results underscore, furthermore, the critical importance of training employees, or lack thereof, in instituting the required new behavior. Originality/value – Most change-management research collects data from the managers' point of view. There are relatively few studies like this one that have been conducted from the perspective of those employees working in frontline service units. Meeting the challenge to improve external and internal service through culture change is crucial in many firms, for their survival and growth; accomplishing such organisational change (in which both culture and climate are positively affected) does indeed require experienced change-management skills. Results of this study recommend the honing of the change-management skill “coaching” for experienced managers, even though they themselves may not feel such a need.