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Serving as Leader When Customers Are Wired and Dangerous

“How can we maximize the profitability and efficiency of our call centers while minimizing the customer’s involvement?” The question was presented to us during a panel discussion at a conference of Fortune 100 CIOs. The author of the question was a very senior leader of one of the 10 largest banks in the nation. Something about his question left us momentarily confused.

“Let me make sure I understand you,” one of us asked. “You want to remove all of the service out of customer service?” He responded with complete seriousness: “Actually, I’d like to take most of the customer out as well!”

The exchange seemed a fitting metaphor for leaders so preoccupied with the scoreboard that they lose sight of the real game. We wanted to scream: “But, what about your mission? As a leader, you need to be the one speaking of cathedral building, not brick counting?” Granted, financial management is important, just like the scoreboard is to a coach. However, the organization that glistens with purpose is the one that creates passionate employees and loyal customers.

Leadership is well-trodden territory, but today’s challenging times with razor-thin margins, employees stretched to the max, and customers ready to go viral with the slightest hiccup make leadership far more difficult than at any time in history. What do great leaders do in such tough times? Examining the actions of the best leaders in the most customer-centric organizations reveals clear themes and practices.

Keep in Touch

“You can pretend to care, you cannot pretend to be there,” wrote Texas Bix Bender. Bender was describing a vital feature of great leadership: command presence. Davy Crockett was a leader with command presence. “David Crockett seemed to be the leading spirit. He was everywhere,” wrote Enrique Esparza, eyewitness to the Alamo, in a newspaper article following the legendary siege. Great leaders focus on being there, everywhere, not in absentia. And, when they are there, they are all there—focused, attentive, and engaged.

Keep Out of the Way

We use the phrase “keep out of the way” not as an invitation to hands-off abandonment but rather as a caution never to use more leadership than is needed. If we have hired smart people and given them solid preparation and clear assignments, they shouldn’t need a parent to watch over them. Limited leadership is the foundation of trust-building empowerment. Empowerment does not translate to unlimited license but rather responsible freedom. Effective leaders give servers the freedom to solve customer problems and answer questions on the spot within flexible guidelines.

Keep Relationships Egalitarian

Power-free is the essence of effective partnership. Partner-leaders create relationships that are vision-centered not power-centered. Partner leaders focus on support, not subservience; on commitment, not compliance. Partner leaders enlist employees as fellow alliance builders, working as equals for the greater good of creating loyal customers. This approach encourages employees to be partners with other employees, and it arms them with the confidence to exhibit partnering enlistment toward customers.

Keep the Focus on Results, Not Activity

Three turtles sat on a log at the edge of the swamp. One decided to jump in. How many are now on the log? Nope, there are still three. Deciding and doing are not the same thing. Until you execute, all decisions are just plain old intentions. Execution—putting skin in the game––is the true test of commitment. “I believe, I support, I approve” are all just weasel words unless they are demonstrated. People judge your position by the one you take, not by the one you propose. Great leaders get off the log!

Keep Your Promises

One feature that has been wrung out of the work world is trust. Trust is born out of authenticity. We trust others when we perceive their motives are unadulterated and credible. Think of the goal as realness-in-motion. Great leaders know humility bolsters trust. They are unimpressed with the trappings of supremacy and more interested in communicating an authentic, generous spirit and an egalitarian style.

Keep Jelly Beans on Your Desk

“Jelly beans” is our code word for the sense of fun today’s employees desperately need.

Be the ambassador of happy. Poke fun at yourself. Look for ways to shake up the place with quirky events, silly signs, and celebrative occasions. Constantly seek the means, moments, and methods to convey gratitude and encouragement for service greatness.

Great service can occur without great leadership. All organizations have those super associates who give great service simply because they believe that customers deserve their very best. However, it takes the guiding hand of effective leaders to ensure that great service happens consistently across an organization, and in a manner that supports the organization’s quest for a good reputation, effective growth, and solid profits.

About the Author(s)

Chip Bell and John R. Patterson wrote the bestselling book Wired and Dangerous: How Your Customers Have Changed and What to Do About it from which this article is adapted. Both Bell and Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and can be reached at www.wiredanddangerous.com