Leadership in Customer Service

When we lived in Africa, our family’s favorite place to get away was the Turtle Bay Beach Club in Watamu, Kenya.

After two days of cross-country travel, we would arrive dusty, hot, and worn out. But the moment we stepped into the lobby, the concierge greeted us with moist, cold towels and glasses of mango juice. The shuttle driver knew our names, and the staff created a welcoming atmosphere.

There were lots of resorts up and down the Kenyan coast. Lots of places with sandy beaches and the warm waves of the Indian Ocean. But the customer service at Turtle Bay kept us coming back year after year.

Leadership plays an essential role in creating a culture of excellent customer service, but that role goes beyond what you may have heard before.

Hire for leadership potential and cultivate leadership in your employees.

You may have heard, “Treat employees the way you want them to treat your customers.”

That’s a powerful truth, and a lot of companies could dramatically increase the quality of their customer service if that’s the only change they made. But modeling good treatment is not enough if your employees do not see themselves as leaders.

In an interview with Forbes, Horst Schulze, the founder and former president of the Ritz Carlton Group of hotels, explained why employees must be leaders to be good at customer service.

“We are superior to the competition because we hire employees who work in an environment of belonging and purpose. … We foster a climate where the employee can deliver what the customer wants. You cannot deliver what the customer wants by controlling the employee. Employees who are controlled cannot respond caringly, you need superior knowledge and real leadership, not management. Because of this we specifically developed a selection process for leaders; we don’t hire managers.”

Schulze’s new ultra-luxury hotel group, Capella, only hires people it believes can be leaders, no matter what their role or job title, because he believes that superior service flows from self-leadership rather than from control.

Model both expectation and recovery.

You have heard that good customer service is about getting it right and that “The customer is always right.”

It’s true that obsession with doing things right leads to excellent service. Companies that pay attention to the details will win over those who don’t. But since perfection is impossible to achieve, the differentiator in service is how the customer is treated when things don’t go right.

Employees need training on how to make amends after a mistake in such a way that the customer feels cared for. Schulze claims that “Customer satisfaction, which leads to customer loyalty, is based on being nice to the customer.” He explains that while quality and timeliness of service are also important, customers will forgive defects in those areas if they are treated with care and concern.

Constantly share the stories of exceptional customer service.

You have heard that great leaders inspire and motivate employees to go above and beyond.

When we think of an inspirational leader, we normally think of a charismatic personality. Leader personalities vary across a wide spectrum, and most are not personally magnetic. But every leader can learn to inspire employees through telling stories of exceptional service.

Schulze tells of a time when a hotel employee escorted a guest to a hospital and stayed overnight to make sure everything was ok. By retelling that story, Schulze is both affirming the employee and setting the bar higher for everyone.

Inspiration is not about the leader being great; it’s about finding greatness in others and lifting them up. The leader’s most inspirational role in promoting excellent service is to become the chief story officer.

Leaders who want to create memorable experiences and lasting customer loyalty will do all three: hire for leadership in every position, train employees in caring recovery, and tell the stories of great service.


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