Leaders Set the Tone for Customer Service

by Jennifer Miller on October 13, 2010

in Leadership

This month over at the LeaderTalk blog, the monthly theme is “A Leader Focuses on Customers” and LeaderTalk author Becky Robinson has asked us to contribute a related blog post. Great customer service starts with the culture a leadership team creates, so it’s a great theme to feature on a leadership blog.  Earlier this summer, I was asked to write an article on leadership and customer service for Executive Travel magazine. What appears below is a longer version (the editors at the magazine have sharp pencils with big erasers!) Becky is seeking submissions for this topic, so send her an email if you want to submit a blog post to be considered for feature in her monthly leadership round-up.




What’s Your Company’s Service Culture?

The other day, my colleague Bob told me an all-too-familiar tale. Bob took his family on vacation to a well-known luxury hotel that has locations across the globe. Bob travels extensively so he’s a “Gold Member” with this hotel chain’s preferred guest rewards program.  As a preferred guest, Bob paid an extra $18 per night during his vacation to get an upgrade of complimentary cocktails, appetizers and breakfast. Or so he thought. It turns out that those perks were only available to Platinum Members. Bob’s “perk” for the extra $18 per night? Free in-room bathrobes and two champagne flutes (but no champagne!) Bob went to the front desk to express his displeasure and confusion. “This situation isn’t really creating an incentive for me to want to book another vacation at your hotel”, he told the front desk clerk.  The desk clerk shrugged and replied, “Do what you have to do.”

What would you do if that front desk clerk worked for you?  To be sure, a shrug and a disaffected “Do what you have to do” creates a bad customer vibe. So, you might be tempted to discipline, or even fire, the employee. Not so fast. Reflect for a moment: what is it about that person’s work environment that led him to believe it was OK to respond that way? Is the company’s culture in some way sending mixed messages about customer service? Further, even if you did want to get rid of the “bad apple”, consider this: US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts job growth of nearly 20% for the job “customer service representative” over the next decade.

The demand for the customer-focused worker is increasing; is your organization positioned to attract and leverage this talent? As the global economy shifts towards services provided by a highly skilled, multi-cultural workforce only those companies who can create a customer-centric experience will garner the customer loyalty that is so highly prized in today’s marketplace.

Many companies aspire to customer service greatness, but few achieve it. Companies like insurance provider USAA, retailer Nordstrom and Starbuck’s routinely appear on “Best Customer Service” lists, but many other household names just don’t make the cut. One reason is that it’s not part of the company’s culture. Banners with slogans and inspirational speakers during Customer Service Week: it’s all just window-dressing.  Clever service mottos don’t create a customer-centric organizational culture, effective leadership does.

As a leader, you need to create a culture that has service ingrained in the company DNA, like that of online clothier Zappos. The company’s website proclaims: “Zappos Culture: Our biggest asset”. Their relentless commitment to customer service and the company culture that fosters it is as strong today as when Zappos opened its doors in 1999.   All new hires are required to attend a 4-week customer service orientation. After week of new employee training, if the employee feels there’s not a good fit, Zappos will pay them a bonus to leave the company. New hires must also (regardless of job title) spend a minimum of 2 weeks on the phone talking to customers.

Lest you think that great service cultures are solely the domain of large organizations—consider Vredevoogd Heating & Cooling, a second generation, family-owned company that employs 50 people in west Michigan. Founded 1964, this heating and cooling contractor provides HVAC services to residential customers.  I have first-hand experience with them as a customer; every single interaction I’ve had with them over the past 12 years has been a model of customer service excellence.  Owner Mike Vredevoogd says it’s about creating a customer service culture—one that is reinforced every day. The company is a member of a best practices group and pays to send its staff to professional training offered by the group. All employees receive extensive technical and customer service training.  Is it costly?  Vredevoogd says it pays for itself: “It differentiates us from our competitors.  If we have the best service out there, we get more customers, which in turn allows us to pay for staff training.”

Commitment this strong to a customer-centric culture is easy to talk about, but difficult to execute.  A company’s leadership team might struggle to really, truly get behind a customer service culture. It takes hard work on the leadership team’s part to bring life to and sustain an organizational culture that’s customer-centric. Leaders have many other items competing for their attention and “customer service” often gets left to the front-line employees. That’s a big mistake on any leader’s part.

Here are five ways leaders can help shape and promote the customer experience:

Model it. Creating a customer-centric culture starts with leaders who model it. All other things flow from that. This applies to leaders in both line and staff functions.  Even if your team doesn’t have direct contact with the purchasing customer, you can still model exemplary internal customer service. One of the most effective role models for customer service is a woman named Mary who leads a corporate training department for a large financial services firm. When her team designs a new training program, one of Mary’s first questions is, “how will we design a program that fits our customers’ needs?” In this case, the “customer” is the employee who will attend the training program. I’ve been in training design meetings during which the trainers will say, “We’ve laid it out so that the training will be X,  Y, Z. . .” and Mary will counter with, “OK, but does that work for our customer?  They are the ones we are designing the training for. Let’s not design the training for our convenience.  Our design has to offer employees the best possible learning experience.”  Leaders who model this meticulous type of care for the customer demonstrate to employees that customers (both internal and external) are important and not just some slogan on a wall.

Observe it. Could you effectively demonstrate how your company’s product works to an interested customer? When was the last time you monitored phone calls in your call center—sitting right next to an actual service rep? What about ride-alongs with your service technicians? Being aware of what’s happening on the frontline does two things: a) it builds awareness for what’s happening in your customer service operations and b) it builds employee morale.  Leaders who are “plugged in” gain credibility with their front-line workers.

Years ago, when I was a Human Resources Manager for a high-end department store retailer, I was sometimes called in to coach a front-line department manager who was having trouble relating to his or her sales associates.  Feedback from the employees typically went like this: “Susan is never around. Whenever we have a question or get swamped on the floor, we have to go find her. She just sits in her office doing paperwork.” Not surprisingly, these department managers were the ones who were having difficulty meeting their departmental sales goals. It was up to me to help them see that they needed to be accessible to their employees—out on the floor, pitching in during peak sales times . . .and not in the back store room taking inventory.

Discuss it. Service mottos all bad, they just need to be used as something more than lip service. Be sure your company’s service statement is up to date and then promote it in a genuine way. Saying it once or twice has very little effect. You’d be surprised how often you need to discuss providing quality service. Caution: no pontificating about how the customer is always right or any other windbag speech with platitudes. It’s about conversation. Engage employees about what they see as key customer service issues in your department. Ask, what’s working, what’s not? Be truly open to what your employees have to say about the customer experience. After all, who has the majority of the data? They do and they’ll share it if you actively listen.

At Vredevoogd Heating & Cooling, company managers run a weekly Customer Service Meeting during which technicians discuss customer service issues.  Managers role-play customer service scenarios to keep the technicians’ skill sharp. It’s this consistent, real-life focus on customer service that, over time, sends employees the message that customers really are important.

Fix it. After all of your observing and discussing you’re bound to hear about something that needs to be fixed.  Do it. Nothing will decrease your customer-centric culture efforts faster than failing to take action on identified problems.  If there are legitimate reasons why a procedure can’t be altered (government regulations, for example) then be sure you are communicating this.  If you’re a layer or two from the front line, be sure your front-line leaders are reinforcing your message. 

Even organizations with a strong service track record need to revisit their service brand. The Ritz Carlton chain of hotels (not the chain mentioned earlier) has long been synonymous with luxurious facilities and impeccable service.  BusinessWeek reports that a few years ago, executives at the Ritz realized that perhaps they did too good a job creating standardized customer service guidelines.  The standards were leading to “cookie cutter” responses from front line staff.  So they went to work on creating customized service scenarios based on each hotel’s locale.  They worked with frontline staff to ensure that the responses were authentic and relevant to their respective locations.

Celebrate it. Your overall corporate culture will dictate what’s appropriate for “celebrating”. Regrettably, most efforts come across as cheesy events, with front-line employees secretly rolling their eyes. Even so, don’t let the naysayers stop you from genuinely saying “thanks” to employees who serve the customer well. One of the effective leaders that I coach blocks time on her calendar for 30 minutes each week to write personal notes thanking employees that have demonstrated exemplary customer service. Above all, employees want to know that their efforts matter. Sometimes a small token of thanks goes a lot further than the grand gesture.

Leaders who keep these five actions foremost in their daily to-do list will be far ahead in the game for creating a strong service culture in their organization.

Photo credit: istockphoto.com © mark wragg

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jennifer V. Miller October 14, 2010 at 8:14 am


I’ve been a customer of Vredevoogd for the past 14 years and can vouch for their tremendous service. I’ve always wondered what senior management did to inculcate such a strong service mindset, so this article provided a perfect opportunity to arrange an interview with the company’s owner, Mike Vredevoogd. It’s a great example of how a company doesn’t need to be huge in size to offer fantastic customer service.

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