So You Want To Be a Service Leader…


    Our vice president, Peg Anthony, Ed.D., shares her thoughts, based upon experience, regarding service leadership.

    For today’s organization, focusing on customers is a critical factor for success.  It impacts customer retention and acquisition, product/service innovation, employee turnover, market share, and financial performance.

    These days, customers don’t have the time or patience to deal with problems.  They no longer hesitate to make a change if they are dissatisfied.  Unfortunately, most customers won’t tell you that your services aren’t up to par.

    • Five times as many customers switch to a competitor because of service-relat­ed problems than because of product- or price-related problems.
    • For every customer who complains, 20-30 others have problems (at least 6 of which may be serious) that you never hear about.
    • While only 1 dissatisfied customer in 20 will complain to you, all 20 will complain to their friends and each of them tells an average of 18 people about the problem.
    • This means for every complaint that you receive, as many as 360 people have likely heard similar complaints or worse.
    • With the Internet and social networking, those who are dissatisfied have the tools to tell their stories to many others.

    Increased competition, com­bined with changes in economic conditions and consumer lifestyles, significantly affects customer behavior and preferen­ces.  Your customers have higher expectations and more choices than ever before; in addi­tion, they’re more knowledgeable and sophisti­cated with regard to the market­place and the goods and services available to them.  And, for public agencies, customers who have no choice can make their dissatisfaction a sources of great consternation for you.

    So, What Does It Take to Be a Service Leader?

    Marriott, FedEx, and American Express are among the giants of service leadership.  These are the organizations have discovered that seven elements build service leadership.  These elements are:

    • Customer Assessment Data
    • Customer-Driven Organizational Culture
    • Product and Service Performance
    • Employee Training in Service Performance
    • Rewards and Recognition
    • Knowledge and Use of Customer Feedback and Data
    • Communication and Marketing

    Developing a customer focus in your organization is more than a necessity in today’s marketplace.  It is an opportunity to differentiate your services, provide valuable benefits that your customers will recognize and appreciate, and secure a stable and loyal customer base.  To become a leading service provider, ask yourself and your organization the following questions.


    Does your organization have a clear understanding of who its customers are?  Are there clear and common understandings between managers and employees?

    The more hierarchical the organization, the more likely the staff is to consider their boss as their prime customer.  Staff may get mixed messages about who their customers are, and may not completely understand customers’ wants and needs. In the ideal, all managers and staff have a clear understanding of customers’ needs and customer segments.

    Does your organization have a customer-oriented mission, vision and organizational values? Is that customer orientation reflected in all of its messages?

    Do the senior managers emphasize the central role of customers in the mission of the organization?  Do all managers and staff, in turn, reflect the same sense of customer-driven mission?  Customer-driven organizations demonstrate their commitment to customers by focusing on their needs during the organization’s strategic planning process, and then articulating customers’ interests in all of its communications.

    What are your organization’s goals and objectives regarding service excellence?

    Service leaders set clear goals and objectives, state them in measurable terms, and establish accountability at appropriate levels. Service improvements may falter if the organization fails to be specific.

    Does the Management Team review customer feedback and related data?

    Some managers review customer complaints on an anecdotal basis.  Some are interested primarily in the organization’s overall score, as the bottom line.  More and more, service organizations are using customer data as a standard method for making decisions.  Managers regularly review customer feedback summaries, just as they review financial and other performance data.  Service providers also need clear feedback from customers about their performance on an individual level.

    What is the level of management commitment to service quality?

    In some organizations, managers pay lip service to service excellence as a motherhood and apple pie issue.  When managers demonstrate service leadership by their actions, decisions, and concrete support, the rest of the organization will follow.  Managers have another important role to play as well.  They must determine how aggressive the organization will be, and how high it will aim toward service excellence.

    Does your organization involve its customers in future planning?

    Does the organization inform customers of decisions made?  Are customers consulted when key decisions are under consideration?  Does the organization test new ideas, initiatives, products, and services before launching them?  To what extent are customers at all levels part of planning and decision-making process?

    Is there an organized customer service change initiative established within your organization? Does it extend to all field units or other service delivery providers that are part of the organization’s service delivery network?

    Organizations today are busy.  To implement a change effort, it may be necessary to designate one or more individuals to serve in a leadership role.  Perhaps this has already occurred. Most initiatives need to be well organized, with sufficient funding and staffing, with tangible management sponsorship and regular attention.  Dedicated resources and senior commitment are needed at all levels of the organization, particularly in field structures.


    To what extent are your organization’s service processes customer-friendly?

    Customers are rejecting bureaucracy, red tape, and paperwork.   Do customers think it is relatively hassle-free, or very difficult, to do business with this organization?  Do they avoid interactions with your organization at all cost, or refer their friends to you for the best service possible?

    What does your organization do when a customer complains?  How does your organization recover when things go wrong?

    Since customers have their own unique and individual views of the kind of service they want and need, it is likely that customers will be dissatisfied from time to time.  Does the organization have a game plan for handling mistakes and complaints?  Is there a mechanism to follow up with customers to be sure that they are satisfied, since many will not complain directly if they are dissatisfied?  Recovery may be the organization’s best tactic for winning over unhappy customers.  However, recovery is an art, and needs to be planned in advance as a service strategy.  Once the customer has been attended to, such complaints and mistakes also need to be tracked to examine trends, root causes and appropriate remedies in systems, processes, and staff skills.

    Has your organization benchmarked service processes with the best service leaders?

    Customers gauge the service they receive in comparison to the services they obtain elsewhere. Not only can organizations learn useful tips from the best practices of service leaders, they can also gain insights about how customer expectations may be shaped by others.

    If applicable, to what extent is there alignment in your organization’s services worldwide?

    Service delivery in complex organizations is dependent on a delicate set of relationships.  Often, a central headquarters or corporate office provides direction and support, but has no direct control over the field service delivery.  One example of this phenomenon is franchised operations.  In such cases, organizations have found that it is important to involve the field managers and staff, along with any suppliers and partners, in service improvement initiatives.

    To what extent is your organization focused on service enhancement, as well as improvement?

    In their desire to be as efficient and cost conscious as possible, some organizations settle for fixing what’s broken.  They fear that enhancements will drive costs up, with little return on the investment.  However, service organizations may find that creating enhancements may be the most important element for future survival.  They are forced to do more with less to meet the continuous escalation of customer expectations.  At the same time, they must distinguish themselves from the competition. Interestingly, this has been true in government service organizations as well as the private sector.

    Are employees empowered to solve customer problems at the point of contact?

    Customers want their problems resolved when they complain.  That means that front line employees need empowerment to make decisions at the level closest to a customer interaction.  If employees have no authority, they know it and behave accordingly.  And customers will know it as well. Service leaders establish guidelines for employees so that many problems can be resolved easily for the customer and cost-effectively for the organization.

    Do your organization’s policies and practices allow for flexibility?

    Inflexible, by the book, service is ineffective in today’s service environment.  Has the organization considered which policies and practices get in the way of front line staff?  Do employees know how to vary the treatment of customers, and to balance the interests of the customer with those of the organization?  Are managers ready to relinquish control?  Are employees ready to make good decisions?

    What common service standards ensure quality service throughout all of your organization’s functions and offices worldwide?

    Consistent customer service standards set expectations about staff and organizational performance.  To what extent has the organization established and communicated measurable standards?  To what extent do those standards reflect customer preferences?  To what extent has performance been evaluated using customer feedback vis a vis the standards?

    Are internal customer-supplier processes clearly understood?

    In service organizations, there are two kinds of staff: those who serve customers directly, and those who support those who do.  Everyone has a role in service delivery.  It is sometimes difficult for those who work in internal service functions to appreciate the front line customer experience.  Conversely, front line service providers often express frustration because they feel the organization imposes hardships on them, making it more difficult to serve customers.  These and other tensions surface among service organizations that have a central headquarters or corporate office and a field structure. To what extent has the organization attempted to align internal and external service?  To what extent is internal service viewed as a necessary ingredient of high quality external service?


    What is the level of customer interaction skills among the staff and managers?  Do the skills reflect both business and human interaction awareness and abilities?

    Frequently, the service provider’s skill in handling a customer can make the difference.  Customers expect friendly, caring service, and will complain when it is missing.  Leading service organizations make major investments in formal training and coaching for all levels of staff and managers.  Highly trained employees and managers use business and human skills internally and externally.

    To support greater degrees of empowerment and flexibility, to what extent are employees and managers trained in problem-solving skills?

    Even if the organization empowers its employees to handle problems, they won’t do it if they feel ill prepared.  They will pass along the problems to supervisors.  Supervisors play a key role in giving permission and protection to employees.  Well-established skills at all levels achieve front-line problem solving.

    Are supervisors prepared to coach employees on their customer service skills?

    Some supervisors are reluctant to coach.  Others have a keen eye for effective customer service skills and give constructive feedback.  Supervisors must also model appropriate behaviors for employees to take them seriously.  To what extent are supervisors willing and able to coach these skills?

    Do managers and supervisors understand how to manage a customer-driven organization?

    No, managing a customer-driven organization isn’t rocket science.  However, the most effective service managers and supervisors are committed to continuous service improvement, understand the change process, and accept their role in supporting service providers and removing impediments to service excellence.  Are managers and supervisors well educated about how to manage?  Do they have clear plans for improving service in their unit?  Are they using commonly accepted customer service tools and techniques?

    How effective is your organization in managing and negotiating customer expectations?

    Do employees hide behind rules?  Or are employees well skilled at negotiating win-win solutions for customers?


    Does your organization select employees on the basis of their customer service skills, attitudes, and knowledge?

    To what extent is customer service experience a major part of selection criteria in filling positions in the organization, including employees and managers?  Is customer service experience a “nice to have” or essential criterion?  Is customer service used consistently for selection decisions?

    Are employees promoted on the basis of their customer service skills?  Are supervisors chosen because of their ability to coach service excellence?

    For front line service positions and supervisors, service organizations establish a strong link between promotion and service excellence.  Are the most service-oriented employees in the organization being promoted?

    What are the rewards and recognition mechanisms for employee service excellence?

    Does the organization reinforce the customer service values it espouses?    If rewards and recognition are given, are they going to the right people, i.e., staff who are regarded by their customers and peers as the best service providers?  Are rewards and recognition given on annual basis, or more frequently to reinforce behavior every day?  Are both tangible and intangible methods used frequently and regularly?


    Does your organization regularly maintain a customer database?

    It is nearly impossible to establish a system of customer measurement without keeping records of who your customers are.  What methods are being used to do so?

    Does your organization have baseline data on customers and service issues?

    What services do your customers want?  On what basis do they judge the service they are obtaining now?  What is the current level of customer satisfaction?  How do local offices vary? What services need the most improvement?  What enhancements would strengthen the organization’s relationships with customers?   A thorough baseline that answers these and other questions is helpful in making decisions and charting progress.

    Does your organization have a system for gathering and using customer feedback?

    The most useful customer data is obtained by organizations regularly and systematically, using multiple methods at multiple times, including transaction based feedback from specific customer events or interactions.  The organization needs this information at the central headquarters or corporate level, and local offices need it as well for their own improvement efforts.  We recommend both satisfaction and loyalty measures to gauge the extent of customer satisfaction.  Not only is it important to measure customer feedback, but it is vital to use the data to drive improvement efforts.  Customers will be looking for improvements if you have asked them for feedback.

    Does your organization obtain feedback from field representatives, partners and stakeholders as another dimension in its measurement of service delivery?

    In addition to customer data, the organization will benefit from feedback from others who are involved in delivering services to customers.  This data is part of the partner/stakeholder feedback that enables an organization to view its entire service delivery system.  To what extent will this internal feedback become a regular part of the service measurement process?

    What can your organization do to help employees deliver high quality service?  What gets in their way?

    Employee surveys are often conducted to determine how satisfied employees are with their work and working conditions.  However, to improve service delivery, it is also useful to seek their input about the systemic issues that get in the way of providing service.  The organization can learn how to best support them as service ambassadors.


    Does your organization report to employees, customers, stakeholders and partners regularly about how it is doing?

    Many organizations find that an open, honest information exchange with customers and others promotes continuous improvement.

    How does your organization communicate internally regarding service performance?

    Is there a fear of admitting service failures?  Is information communicated regularly, or on a spotty basis?  Does the organization celebrate its service heroes and organizational successes?

    Are your organization’s external communication and marketing efforts linked to customer loyalty strategies?  Is there any attempt to leverage positive customer feedback, such as testimonials?  Is there a concerted effort to build loyalty and to leverage customers’ good will?

    Does your organization’s name have any brand identity among customers?

    When customers hear your organization’s name or acronym, does it conjure positive thoughts?  Does it symbolize high quality service and caring customer support?  If there is no apparent link, the organization may want to review how it can use its marketing efforts to increase its standing with customers.  Customers who know the brand, and view the organization positively, will have a valuable emotional attachment–one that encourages customer loyalty and brings customers back.

    Does Management communicate about customer service excellence to employees?

    Is Management doing all it can to reinforce its organizational strategies for service excellence by continuously communicating about it with employees?  Does Management emphasize customer satisfaction, or emphasize the importance of going the extra mile?  Is communication top-down, bottom-up, or both?

    Better Services Go Hand in Hand with Better Service Delivery

    As you focus on becoming a service leader, be sure to consider all of the factors that contribute to service excellence.  Often, improvement efforts focus on just one aspect of service training staff, improving service offer­ings, organizational effectiveness, or learning more about customers’ needs and wants.  In very few organizations, are these pieces pulled together.

    As you can see, we have a vast amount of experience in this arena.  We’re interested to hear how we can help you become a service leader.  Visit our website for more information at