What Great Service Leaders Actually Do
by Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson

It all started with an exercise at an executive retreat. We had been queried by participants throughout the session to reveal what "walking the talk" looked like for a service leader.

"Sure, you're supposed to be a role model. We know all about making service excellence a priority and how we need to communicate the service vision," they chided. "But, that's just consultant-talk. What does 'being a service leader' look like up close on a Monday morning when the sh_t is hitting the fan?"

Remembering the lessons from Consulting 101, we opted to avoid answering their question, but used a small group exercise instead. "Assume you implemented today a new unconditional service guarantee," we instructed the group. "The service guarantee promised that if customers were not completely happy with the service they received, they would get a refund equal to ten times the price. What actions would you take as a leader to avoid quickly going bankrupt?"

The mood in the room shifted from doubting Thomas to take-charge warrior. Even the quieter members were filling up flipcharts with leader actions aimed at keeping the service spirit alive and employees focused on taking care of customers. When the exercise was completed the group of twelve had generated over a hundred specific "Monday morning" actions and in the process discovered their own answers to their "walking the talk" question.

We compared their list with what we have witnessed among leaders known for inspiring, instigating, and sustaining a culture famous for service. Some have names that identify their enterprise - Bruce Nordstrom, Debbi Fields, Bill Marriott, etc. Most are known only to their associates, stockholders, and customers. Their actions have similar themes.

They Connect

"He's everywhere," say people of Ed Fuller, President of Marriott International. The words are not just about a man who travels the globe practically every month. It is the way Ed takes time to greet the bellman from a previous trip, to ask the "Was it a boy or girl" question of the front desk clerk who was pregnant on his last visit to a property, or to tell a story about great service by a banquet supervisor in the presence of her general manager. Fuller is more than a people person, he's a people lover. And, he connects with openness, enthusiasm, and a spirit of adventure.

Great service leaders avoid getting "stuck in meetings." Try and schedule a sit down meeting with Larry Kurzweil, president of Universal Studios Hollywood and you are likely to get, "Sure we can meet. You don't mind if we walk the park while we talk, do you?" You get Larry's complete focus, only it is punctuated with stops to ask questions of associates or give directions to lost guests. It is like he is the energy source for the park and if he is not out there meeting, greeting, and energizing then the park will deflate and go flat. And, he has plenty of company - his leaders are out there as well.

They Trust

Trust is something which happens within people only when it is created between people. However, trust does not happen by accident; it is crafted "by hand." It takes personalized action and attention to the impact that leader actions have on associates. Great service leaders are quick to credit others. They believe in associates often more deeply than the associates believe in themselves. They coach instead of censure when excellent effort produces disappointing results. They surprise associates by giving them assignments that spell t-r-u-s-t. When employees experience trust from within, they are quick to demonstrate trust to customers.

When Chip was in his first month of employment as a fresh-out-of-college banker, his boss sent him to an important conference the boss was originally scheduled to attend. Chip was sent with a special assignment - to get to know other bankers from the competition to gain insight into their plans and approaches. Rather than debrief Chip privately upon his return, the boss asked Chip to share his learning with the entire division. While an "orientation program by fire," the action shouted volumes about trust.

They Enrich

"Add value to every moment by taking it personal," was the advice given to associates by Greg Haller, President - Michigan/Indiana/Kentucky Region, Verizon Wireless at their rally near Detroit. The words come from a man renowned for his passion for the customer and his "I'm so excited" spirit. Great service leaders look for ways to add value. Instead of barking an order, they inspire by telling a story. Rather than waiting for information, they go and get it. Instead of learning about customer experiences from a survey, they find out face to face. They abhor excuses, blame, or any actions that acquiesce to the status quo rather than altering it. Helen Keller said it well: "Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing." So it is with great service leaders.

"There is more to 'turning lemons into lemonade' than just a positive effort," says Dallas-based motivational speaker Ed Foreman. "Lemons take very little energy, but lemonade is a creation you have to work at." When Foreman was scheduled to do an all-day workshop at an invitation-only event in Scotland, he arrived there only to learn the sponsor had been unable to enlist a single participant. "Don't worry," the sponsor told Foreman. "We'll pay your daily fee and expenses; you can take the day off." "Not a chance," responded Foreman. "We're going to call on your customers together and get as many as we can enlisted in you next training event." The sponsor learned a great lesson as Foreman's passion turned customer resistance into customers registered.

They Inspire

Don Freeman, Chairman of the Freeman Companies, says of his commitment to customers: "Freeman's past success is largely due to a legacy of excellent customer service, and I remain totally dedicated to that focus. I know we can do this. We can be a great general services contractor and still give customized special service to every customer." Don, with CEO Joe Popolo, speak from the heart instead of a chart when they address managers about taking the courageous step of rapidly changing the culture to one focused on customer loyalty. Leading out loud means irrefutable passion behind vision-aligned actions.

One of the country's leading full service contractors for expositions and conventions, Freeman delivers great service to its key customers - show management. Eager for rapid growth Freeman realized it must create that same reputation with customers who exhibit at shows, not just those who manage the shows. In response to customer suggestions, Freeman opened a new Customer Support Center. "Unlike some call centers where the primary purpose is to take orders, the Center assists exhibitors with show service questions and quickly resolves their issues," says Center manager Brenda McCord. As Joe Popolo, CEO of Freeman says "While we do so many things right as a company, and we have the most dedicated, talented employees, this is an area where we must improve to move our company to the next level."

They Focus

Pegasus Solutions, Inc. is a global leader in bringing vital technology and services to the hotel reservations arena. Long known for cutting edge IT products, the company realized world class customer service was becoming a key to marketplace success. John Davis, CEO of Pegasus Solutions, also recognized that to create a culture famous for service, on-going customer input was vital. A customer-centric culture depends on relevant metrics, practical measures, and timely action plans grounded in what customers perceive as key features of great service.

"Our efforts to improve customer loyalty began with a customer survey, designed to provide a starting point for our renewed focus on the customer," said Davis. "Our employees embraced the survey results and quickly created action plans to address the feedback we received. They assembled metrics to help measure progress and a service vision to keep us accountable to our service goals. Now, we celebrate dozens of customer success stories each month."

Great service leaders don't stop for a moment to think about what "walking the talk" looks like for a service leader. When the stress is on and the stakes are high they set the standard for their organizations. As any parent knows who has hammered a finger with an observant child as witness, modeling is most memorable when under pressure. Great leaders connect, trust, enrich, inspire, and focus. They patiently listen to employees, customers, vendors in a constant quest for service improvement. Bottom line, great service leaders are great because of one over-riding quality: they serve.

Chip R. Bell is a senior partner with Performance Research Associates and manages their Dallas office. He is the author of several best-selling books. His newest book is Magnetic Service: Secrets for Creating Passionately Devoted Customers (with Bilijack R. Bell). Visit www.chipbell.com for additional information.

John R. Patterson is president of Atlanta based Progressive Insights, Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in helping organizations around the world effectively manage complex culture change built around employee and customer loyalty. Visit www.johnrpatterson.com for additional information.

Many more articles in Customer Service in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2004 by Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson. All rights reserved.

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