Customer Service & Culture – Both are about Leadership

I remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed with great customer service. Early in my career, I probably didn’t give a lot of thought to the customer of any of my work products. Certainly, I thought about the boss and making sure they were happy because the boss being happy had a direct impact on my pay. However, as my own leadership role evolved, I came to regard great customer service as a hallmark of a successful leader who has nurtured a successful culture.


We are all customers.

A few years into my career, I got my first taste of paying attention to customer needs when the organization I was working for launched a required training course across the entire workforce and not only did I have to take the course, but I was also assigned to help implement the course and train others. The course was called “Knock Their Socks Off” customer satisfaction training. The training had a catchy name and ran participants through scenarios where they had to respond to different customer complaints and were then critiqued and provided better ways to handle each situation. I don’t remember the course being particularly impactful across the organization, (just another mandatory training course to get through), but it did have a positive impact on some people, me included.

I started paying a lot more attention to who my customer was in each work situation I was in, and I also started paying a lot of attention to the type of service I received as a customer. For example, recently I decided to get a new car lease but after working through all the details with a very helpful sales rep I received a poorly worded letter in the mail claiming I didn’t have the right credit (not true!) for the car. After calling around and being on hold for over 1.5 hours, I found out finally from the rep (who was on vacation at the time) that the letter was a legal requirement when a sale goes beyond the end of a current month and that they have no say in the mandated wording of the letter which made it look like I was a credit risk. Before deciding if I should proceed with the sale, I asked to talk to the general manager since as the leader of the organization they should set the tone for the organization. Thankfully, the general manager listened, thanked me for taking the time to talk through the issues and committed to work to fix them so I could feel confident proceeding with my purchase. That dealership came close to losing a loyal customer.

Poor customer service really pushes my buttons. Before I developed this awareness, if I received sub-standard service, I may be frustrated but would just tolerate it and walk away. Now, instead of tolerating it, I politely talk with someone or multiple someone at the business, escalating, if necessary, to let them know what was wrong with the customer service and what I’d like to see done as a result.

My taking customer service issues head on has sometimes embarrassed my family members, has caused me to stop giving a favorite restaurant my business, cancel memberships, and resulted in my walking away from a big purchase and going to their competitor all because of customer service issues.

Customers have more choices about who they do business with today than ever before, and they do not have to purchase products or services from companies where they feel they are not getting great customer service. Customer service can directly impact the bottom line of a business.


Who is responsible for customer service?


Each and every person is responsible for customer service, but it starts at the top with leadership. Great customer service is tightly coupled to the culture of the organization, and is based on how leaders treat customers, expect customers to be treated, and what they reward in their employees!

A great example comes to mind. The Ritz Carlton Hotel Company is known for their “gold standard” of customer service. They expect each of the employees to be ready to serve the customer and give them a great customer experience at any time. They use the phrase “Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.” One of their five principles is “Deliver Wow” and is about the ultimate guest experience. An example that illustrates this is: If one of their electricians (who wouldn’t generally be expected to have direct contact with the guests) was changing a light bulb and saw a guest that needed assistance in some way, they were to stop what they were doing (changing a lightbulb in this example) and make sure the customer was taken care of. Great customer service is built into the brand of the Ritz Carlton organization and every employee knows that they need to provide great customer service in support of that brand. In other words, it started at the top and was baked into the culture.

Conversely, if the leader doesn’t care about customer service, then no one else in the organization will either. Employees watch what leaders do and say, which tells them what the leaders focus on and what is important to them. It’s the leader’s job then to not only set the expectations for a culture of great customer service but to also walk the talk in their actions every day.

I challenge leaders to take a look at their organization through the eyes of the customer. Are there issues your customers may be experiencing that you aren’t even aware of? Are you losing potential or existing customers because of issues that can be easily addressed? It is much harder to win a customer back than to just take care of them and keep them happy.



Reference Book: “The New Gold Standard, 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience” by Joseph A. Michelli

Debbie Collard has 30+ years of leadership experience. She served on the National Baldrige Foundation Board of Directors for 15 years, including as the first female Chair of the Board. She is an iPEC- and ICF-Certified Professional Coach and co-author of The Making of a World- Class Organization, a practical guide for leaders to engage employees and increase profitability.

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