Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management


Five leadership practices for improving customer service

customer-serviceMany blog posts have been written about customer service. Add those to the many magazine articles and books, and it’s safe to say there is no shortage of advice on quality customer service. Serving the customer is an important topic, and given the importance of keeping customers engaged, it’s amazing how many organizations still don’t get it. Too often the sales agents and support engineers taking the calls either are not empowered to make decisions, they are too lazy or they just don’t care. It’s sad to think that a companies with great products would not make customer service their highest priority.

In almost every case, when customers (or worse, potential customers) feel they received substandard customer service, they automatically blame the person across the counter or on the other end of the phone. However, the culpability ultimately rests on the leaders of the organization. What happens at the customer ‘touch point’ is the responsibility of upper management. If they want to keep customers they need to lead out in the efforts to elevate customer service.

Following are five leadership practices for improving customer service:

  • Decide to create the culture: The leaders of an organization must decide that customer service will be a top priority. They need to establish this culture at all levels. The decision will come from the top of the organization and permeate through all levels. It must be done on purpose.
  • Hire the right people: The leaders will hire people who know how to work with customers. They will look for people with experience at helping customers understand the products and get the most value from their services. Leaders will look for people with a proven track record of doing the right thing for customer (which occasionally might mean referring them to another company’s product). Leaders looking to hire the right people will do thorough background checks and ask a lot of questions.
  • Coach them: As you establish a culture of customer service and hire the right people, train them to effectively work with customers and teach them how to handle difficult situations. Identify a few of the top performers and put them to work coaching others in the company. This infuses the service culture more deeply and promotes a more unified approach throughout the company. If you do not yet have people in-house who are capable, hire a coach to train your teams, and work with the coach to identify people within the organization who can extend the right principles throughout.
  • Inspire them: Motivate the people in your organization — at all levels — to want to serve others. Establishing the right culture is key. Financial incentives and career advancement only go so far. When the leaders of the organization place customer service as one of their top priorities, they have the prerogative to expect everyone to do the same. Let your actions and behaviors inspire others.  As Ralph Nader said: “The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”
  • Empower them: Finally, grant people — at all levels of the organization — the authority to make decisions. The scope and magnitude of decisions will vary by title and responsibility. However, every person at any level should be empowered to make decisions on behalf of the organization. Start by asking leaders at all levels to make a list of five things their people can do without having to escalate to their supervisor. Place appropriate guidelines around the actions that can be taken, and trust your people to make the right decisions. Provide a “back door” in case they get into a tight spot. The “back door” should instill confidence that the organization will back people at any level in their decisions. When people know they work for a customer-focused organization they will give much more to their individual efforts.
We live in the information age and quality customer service is becoming more important as time moves forward. Each of these steps is critical for true customer service. It must come from the top and permeate the entire organization.

Let us not take the attitude portrayed in this classic Dilbert cartoon:

Dilbert on Customer Service

Dilbert on Customer Service

The Product Management Perspective: Customer service is at the heart of product management. Whether gathering customer inputs, writing problem statements or creating requirements the next product or release, the customer is (or definitely should be) the focus of what product managers do. While they may not hire people into the company, they have an influence on the people who get hired. Furthermore, product managers are in a key position to affect the culture of the company. The interactions with both internal and external people provide excellent opportunities for product managers to spread the culture of customer service.