The pursuit of customer-centricity: What are service leaders - and where can I find them?


In her latest article exploring best practice in customer service, Stephanie Edwards looks at the challenges in defining and locating customer-centric leaders.

11th Dec 2009

Recently I talked about service leaders and managers who can make or break an organisation’s values (see The 10 strategy tenets for developing a customer-driven workforce). I intimated that a leader who successfully creates a customer-focused culture will have a huge impact on business success through employee retention and customer loyalty. But where do we start - the recruitment process maybe?

Lets look back briefly to 2008, when the CIPD informed us via its Recruitment, Retention and Turnover survey that the average cost of filling a single vacancy was around £4,667, rising to £10,000 for senior managers and directors. Have we absorbed those figures yet?   

With 78% of UK organisations surveyed seeking external help with recruitment, those costs have probably spiralled. Therefore it is more important than ever to recruit the best customer service leaders and managers first time around. Organisations need to be smart and recruit people who have the right skills and dedication and are truly passionate about service excellence. These are attributes which will support all customer facing teams in achieving the organisation’s goal of world class service excellence.

Visionary and inspirational

Question: Does your organisation take the recruitment of senior service professionals - 'service champions' - seriously? We all know - or at least we should do by now - that service is the differentiator when it comes to business success, but I believe that some organisations are merely looking at traditional management competencies rather than recruiting the best service leaders in the marketplace. Service leaders and managers who are passionate about service excellence for customers, those who are visionary, inspirational and charismatic, will lead your teams to achieve great things for your organisation.

But, on the other hand, is it all too much trouble? Maybe there are not enough of these people about! Well have I got news for you: if your organisation is committed to creating a service vision or service personality to gain competitive advantage, you need to look more closely at your job specifications for these very special individuals. Without the right leaders who have the right attitudes and competencies you will never succeed, particularly in the service sector. What is more concerning, you could be stuck with these people for years to come!

Service leaders should have, in my opinion, great personalities that will inspire and motivate your teams. This doesn't mean good leaders necessarily have to be charismatic, but they need to inspire by example. Their every word and every action demonstrates their passion for the  service vision. It might take more time, more persistence and the right recruitment agency, but it will pay off every time.

Remember, customers today are more promiscuous, they vote with their feet, they do not complain - and why should they? Most organisations do not make it easy to complain, so why bother? We have to realise that these customers (which includes all of us) know when they are being treated as a number, a 'win' or a one-time transaction. They can also spot those 'little changes' that are designed purely for your internal efficiency. So we need service leaders who can support their teams when customers get tough. We need to trust and empower our service leaders to take risks, ensuring their teams can make a difference for customers.

Strategic thinking

Simon Cooper, president of Ritz-Carlton, said: "We entrust every single Ritz-Carlton staff member, without approval from their general manager, to spend up to $2,000 on a guest. And that’s not per year, it’s per incident. The concept is to do something, to create an absolutely wonderful stay for a guest." Wow!

Service leaders need to know how far they can go for their customers; therefore they need to understand customers’ demands. Think like a customer first and foremost. Organisations need to understand that recruiting the right service leaders will result in increased customer satisfaction, which in time will translate to a healthy profit for the organisation.

Good leaders are strategic with their thinking; they understand what results the organisation is trying to achieve and they will ensure that all of their decisions and actions are consistent with the vision. They not only resolve today's problems but also prevent future problems from occurring by communicating closely with their teams and their customers. Good leaders achieve what they set out to do before launching new initiatives. They listen closely to their teams who often know what customers’ issues are and how to resolve them. By contrast, poor leaders may have dozens of conflicting programs and priorities. Leaders with 20 priorities essentially have no priorities.

Highly visible leadership

One key leadership task is to create an environment where your people can become passionate about your vision. It is hard for your people to be passionate about something different every day if your service leaders are not. If your service leaders are passionate and consistent, reinforcing the same messages, then your teams will quickly understand what is important to you and the organisation and your messages will get through. If, on the other hand, you constantly change themes and messages, your employees will soon think it is not particularly important.

Highly visible leadership provides powerful reinforcement. It will inspire everyone in the organisation to be part of the cycle of service excellence. All employees in great organisations are passionate about what they do and this inspiration extends to customers, investors, suppliers, boards of directors and all other stakeholders. In short, service leaders make it happen!

One last thought for you when writing up your job descriptions. Peter Cunningham, general manager of World Duty Free Europe, improved the quality of internal and external customer service by ensuring that all teams understood and lived their vision of 'Creating a Great Place to Work resulting in a Great Place to Shop.' He said: "Managers are now called customer service leaders and we have ensured they have the right skills to spend 80% of their time with their staff and customers." I will repeat this: 80% of their time with staff and customers!, not hiding in their offices! Need I say more? Just think about it!  

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