Follow the service leader

Nov 01, 2005 10:30 PM  By

Customers should never have to work to get service. They shouldn’t be obligated to know their customer numbers or item numbers before they can enjoy the privilege of shopping with us. They shouldn’t have to check on the same delayed order multiple times or tell their sad stories of complaint to multiple employees. They shouldn’t have to coerce their friends into helping them pack up and lug heavy boxes of unsatisfactory items because they had no way to evaluate product quality without actually ordering and seeing the merchandise.

Customers have the right not to have their time, effort, energy, or goodwill wasted when marketers should really be adding to their intelligence, beauty, success, and status. Because isn’t that how you build customer satisfaction? Satisfaction is highly situational; it comes from using the right information, picking the best deal, making the decision that was appropriate to the particular circumstances, getting what you should have gotten, being treated the way you thought you deserved.

Whose responsibility is it to provide the direction that fosters satisfactory service? Watch out if your organization touts the philosophy that “service is everyone’s job.” Certainly every employee should think and care about service, but if a company does not devote explicit and strategic attention to service concepts and service delivery, the result is often a lack of support and follow-through as demonstrated by a dearth of resources in infrastructure, people, and methods.

Almost everything in commerce now drifts to commoditization. Unless you’re absolutely the lowest-cost provider, you need to differentiate your business and demonstrate your uniqueness in order to hold a customer base. Your service is one of the ways to set yourself apart. That’s why you need strategic service leadership — not just operational efficiency, not just fabulous throughput, not just outstanding statistics for calls processed and e-mail turnaround.

So what is service leadership? It integrates a talent for leadership — skills such as identifying the corporate commitment; setting the bar for performance; directing, developing, and motivating employees to meet those objectives — with an understanding of service in both conceptual and practical terms: what customers expect, how to satisfy and retain them, and how to organize to meet those requirements.

A company that has solid service leadership speaks as if with one voice. A customer who calls in several times with the intention of dividing and conquering to get inappropriate concessions will be greeted with unfailing helpfulness and consistent answers. That’s because everyone in an organization with service leadership knows what the right thing to do is under any given set of conditions — not because everyone marches in lockstep or is punished for saying or doing something different, but because “that’s how we treat our customers.”

The service leader starts with strategy to ensure the incorporation of goals, intentions, meaning. A service strategy lets you coordinate decision-making at all levels, departments, and channels. It determines how you should allocate resources across the business. It sets clear expectations for quality standards, departmental functioning, and individual performance. It also underpins the context for policies and procedures that determine how you want customers to be treated and what kind of experience you want them to take away. Bottom line, it helps you evaluate whether you’re getting an appropriate balance between customer satisfaction and operations cost.

A service leader publicizes outcomes, both progress and setbacks, because true leadership requires openness and candor. The service leader knows that when people at every level acknowledge the actual conditions, they can work more effectively and with greater commitment. The service leader recognizes and rewards individual and group performance. In an operation run by a service leader, you’ll see plenty of charts posted, and maybe a Wall of Fame, because performance is always top of mind.

Service leaders model both service and leadership principles in their daily behavior. They probe, listen, and verify, propose instead of impose, gain agreement, take action, summarize expectations. They know how to take heat as well as how to spread oil on troubled waters; they know how to handle the irate call and answer the egregious e-mail themselves and are happy for the chance to be close to the customer.

Creating a meaningful customer experience

If you had to give an “elevator speech,” could you explain how your service delivery methods and style differentiate your brand from those of your competitors? Do your customers think they’re dealing with a smart business? Do they perceive you to be the best in the field? Are they convinced that you care about them? How much?

Customers pick your business based on some combination of reputation and quality, price and convenience, availability, speed, dependability, and security — and it’s a shifting equation. Any individual customer may need one or more of these qualities or may need different ones at different times.

Each customer touch point has implicit, if not explicit, meaning for customers; your service strategy helps you balance the roles and effects of both your human and your machine interfaces in the customer experience.

Increased efficiency and standardized, formulaic approaches will reduce your costs up to a point, and can possibly increase value for customers if there’s a pass-along effect of reduced prices. But taken to the extreme, excessive routinization will actually prevent service employees from learning enough about individual customer needs and preferences. Familiarity — particularly hearty and fake — is no substitute for actually knowing the individual customer’s history and preferences and customizing the service interaction.

Service leaders don’t permit the drive to efficiency and cost-control to outweigh the value of a positive customer experience. You can only pass along so much in cost savings before you run out of savings altogether, but a fully engaged customer advocate will not only hit your top tiers of lifetime value but will do missionary marketing for you as well and bring other customers in to the fold.

The current thinking in both psychology and economics is that humans make decisions emotionally and only secondarily justify them logically and rationally. What value do you want your service delivery to hold for customers? Are your processes, procedures, and style matched to their needs? The service leader considers analogous questions for employees: What meaning do employees impute to current practices and standards for service delivery? Do they understand why they’re important to the business? To the customers and their satisfaction?

Any issue that consistently frustrates or disturbs customers eventually becomes a frustration and a real source of fear for reps, who begin to dread arrival of the next interaction and the next problem. Backorders are a good example. Customers often express the belief that the company “lied” if an item that appears in the catalog or the Website is out of stock when they try to order it (“Why are you advertising it if you haven’t got it?”). If backorders are consistently high, reps may also start to believe it’s intentional and can easily extend this distrust of management’s motives beyond stock levels to employee relations, service policies, and offers.

If you want to sow either leadership or service down the organization, you need to create an environment and working conditions in which service leaders can emerge and thrive at every level. Regardless of title, if people are waiting around to be told what to do or what to think, they’re not leading. You can build service leadership through the ranks by teaching employees how and when to take appropriate risks and backing their decisions even as you train them to make more-effective decisions or demonstrate better skills. How you treat employees sets the context for how they treat customers.

Reps can increase their perception of the worth and meaning of their own jobs when they are able to provide a higher level of value and service to customers. Conversely, if reps feel that they have been constrained from delivering value because of shoddy products or erratic service, or if bad policies and procedures have created barriers to good customer care, then they value their own jobs less and are more inclined to turn over quickly, sometimes regardless of pay.

Proof of leadership

Recently, as a conference panelist, I was asked what was the least costly method for recruiting front-line workers. I disappointed audience members who hoped to try my approach immediately, because my answer was to cultivate a waiting list of candidates who’d like to be considered for employment. That waiting list is proof of leadership.

It means you’ve already invested in creating and sustaining a supportive, engaging environment for customers and employees. You’ve hired people with the right skills, styles, strengths, and motivation; made sure they were fairly compensated; given them a future with the company; and helped them continue to learn and grow by making decisions and taking action.


Liz Kislik is president of Rockville Centre, NY-based call center and customer service consultancy Liz Kislik Associates.

Service metrics of meaning

All executives seek and rely on relevant metrics and benchmarks. And, of course, you need the typical operations service standards for length of call delay, turnaround times for e-mail responses, close and resolution rates, return rates, etc.

These standards are the closest things you’ve got to surrogates for the customers’ experience of your accessibility, your responsiveness, and your ability to work with them effectively. You can ask customers heaps of attitudinal and opinion questions and get a sense of their beliefs, but you can’t actually measure the quality of their experience exactly as they experience it no matter how much you’d like to.

So what metrics will tell you something actionable about the meaning of the way you work? Consider some of the following, more qualitative performance measures of internal effectiveness:

Does your group move quickly to make necessary changes? Do individuals collaborate well? Do you hold each other accountable, whether or not a customer does? Are you vigilant about identifying both investment opportunities (improvements) and cost savings (efficiencies)? Are you able to get organizational buy-in at every level for new service initiatives? Is there substantive cross-channel coordination? Is service information shared widely and consistently throughout the organization?

That said, you should also be aware of the risks of benchmarking and trying to compare facilities with noncongruent philosophies and practices to yours. Instead, assess and document what’s happening in your own service operations, and identify any gaps between the present status and any desired future state.
LK