Are You a BEST Leader at Customer Service? Get Your Feet Burnt!

BEST PostCustomer (client) service is in the dumps with most companies and publicly funded organizations. We all have our favorite stories of horrendous customer service. Whether it’s the retail clerk smacking gum in your face or texting while pretending to serve you, the server whose manners border on contempt, the civil servant at the motor vehicle branch who appears totally bored with you, or the call center agent who cuts you off mid-sentence to scold you, each of us experiences various levels and types of customer service every day.

However, we’re also sometimes the beneficiaries of excellent customer service.

Why do some employees strive to serve their customers or clients the best way possible, even when they’re on the receiving end of someone who’s cranky and rude? What spurs them on to empower themselves to be leaders in customer service?

At first glance you might say it’s one of the mysteries of the universe. However, in reality it’s not as complicated as that. Some people are more intrinsically motivated to help and serve others. That’s been my personal orientation for almost 35 years.

I cut my teeth on customer service in my early twenties after college in the late seventies. I worked for a finance company for a few years, where my job involved building business in a very competitive industry through consumer loans and mortgages. And then I went out knocking on doors to collect delinquent loans. That job built character as one former colleague put it.

I went back to school to earn a Masters degree in economics and then worked in government for three decades. A good portion of my career was in service branches, including managing one for many years. As much as that was demanding at times, there’s nothing like having your feet put to the fire with real, live customers who want to be served NOW.

After concluding my career in the public sector, I did a number of contracts involving policy research and social media writing. But more recently I’ve returned to customer service in the private sector on a part-time basis. I work in the hardware section of a very large U.S.-based home improvement chain. Just in hardware there are some 9,000 items, ranging from 20 cent washers to $900 miter saws.

The product knowledge requirements are demanding; I felt like an absolute neophyte my first few months. But it’s getting better as I build my knowledge base. When a customer walks into hardware and asks me a question I’d better have the solution to his issue or be able to find it quickly.

Then there’s the common scene of having several customers arrive almost simultaneously, each with specific needs. You need to remain focused on the customer you’re serving, be able to multitask by staying cognizant of those waiting and helping them in between your first customer who’s checking something out, and be polite when you encounter someone who decides to dump on you for whatever unexplained reason.

The ONLY way you truly learn about customer service is by having your feet put to the fire.

I recently read a recent Harvard Business Review article about customer service. I laughed most of the way through it, considering it was written by three academics who’ve probably never served a customer in their lives. Let’s get real here.

My intent in this post is to leave you with something you can keep at the back of your mind when you’re interacting with a customer or a client. Or if you’re a manager who’s become detached from the real world of feeling your feet burn, get out of your office and interact with those who keep your company viable and who pay your salary. And if you work in government: please get out of your office!!

So what’s my BE2ST acronym about?

Bedazzle – Show your brilliance and skill in exceeding your customers’ expectations, each and every time.

This is not rocket science, folks. When you walk into a restaurant, motor vehicle branch or clothing store, you expect excellent service. Follow the Nordstrom’s practice of blowing away customers with your service. Leave them in awe of you. Make them want to come back–
soon! This is the practice I strive to follow each shift I work in hardware.

Nothing makes me more satisfied than when I help a customer solve their need, and they turn to me to express their thanks. That could be selling a $400 combo drill-saw set, or simply a $3 wall anchor pack. And, yeah, count on that customer coming back to buy more product and telling their family and friends.

E2 – Empower and Enable

The “empower” word is one that rubs me the wrong way. NO ONE can empower you; you can only empower yourself. However, one of the key roles of managerial leadership is to provide an environment–the context–that ENABLES you to rise to your potential. Understand the discrete distinctions between self-empowerment and enabling people. If you’re not trusted by management or nickel and dimed, what it reaps is what it will sow.

If you tell staff they’re empowered to serve customers but you contradict that edict by ripping into them when they make a decision or overrule it, they’ll quickly see through your façade of phony leadership. Worse, you’ll create a climate of mistrust and cover-your-butt customer service. In the end, your customers will take their business elsewhere.

As a manager, create the conditions in your work environment that will enable your team to do their jobs at 100% capacity. People will self-empower themselves to bring the best out of themselves when they see their bosses being deadly serious about superior customer service.

S – Solve the Customer’s Issue

If you’re not doing this you’re wasting everyone’s time, including your own. And you’re certainly not helping your company meet its bottom line. Make a tangible difference EACH time you serve a customer. And if, for example, your store doesn’t have a particular item in stock, know where to send the customer. I’ve done that on several occasions and customers are very appreciative for the additional information. And they’ll be back because they trust that my team mates and I will have the solutions to their needs.

T – Thank Your Customer

What’s with this “Awesome” and “No worries” bullshit when I say thank you to someone who’s served me? It seems to be the hip reply from especially young people. Older people say “No problem.” It seems that an increasing number of server providers have bizarre ways of acknowledging the simple “Thank you” from customers.

When I am thanked by a customer for helping them, which is almost all the time, I reply with two simple words: “You’re welcome.” Now how hard was that? And I follow that with something like, “We hope to see you again soon.”

Customer service is mostly common sense. However, it demands perseverance, commitment and the ability to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Reflect on Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Habit #5 is Seek First to Understand, Then Be Understood. When it comes to customer service, before you open your mouth listen carefully to the customer. Then ask specific questions, listening carefully to each reply to take you down the road to a solution and a completely satisfied customer.

Active listening is the most important skill to develop when it comes to customer service.

Give it a try! Take a moment to share your own customer service experiences.

Excellent firms don’t believe in excellence – only in constant improvement and constant change.
Tom Peters

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