How to Be a Better Customer Service Leader

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Imagine you could develop a customer-focused culture.

A culture so powerful that your employees always seem to do the right thing. They encourage each other, proactively solve problems, and constantly look for ways to go the extra mile.

Are you interested?

When I wrote The Service Culture Handbook, I explored how top companies and teams developed service cultures. I looked at data, dug deep into company operations, and talked to experts. 

I also put my email and phone number in the book to encourage people to reach out to me. Over the past couple of years, I've talked to hundreds of customer service leaders about their successes and struggles with building service cultures.

There are no quick fixes.

Leaders who get their employees obsessed with service stayed focused and consistent over a long period of time. Are you willing to be one of the few who puts in the effort?

This guide can help you become a better customer service leader.

Customer service team having a discussion.

What is leadership?

One of the challenges with getting better at leadership is the term "leadership" is ill-defined. Ask 100 people what leadership means and you'll get 100 great answers, but they'll all be different.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary isn't much help here. It defines a leader as "a person who leads."

I recently met a keynote speaker at a National Speakers Association conference. He told me he had been delivering presentations on leadership for over 20 years. Surely, this guy would have a great definition of leadership, right?


He stammered incoherently for 5 minutes trying to describe what it means to be a leader, before finally giving up and admitting it's one of those things where "you know it when you see it."

That's not good enough. You can't become a better leader if you don't know exactly what a leader is. 

So here's a simple definition:

A leader is someone who has followers.

This means a leader needs to do two things:

  1. Pick a direction

  2. Get people to follow

Wait, isn't there more to it?

Sure there is! But at its most basic, a leader inspires other people to follow them. So if you want to build a service culture, you must get people to buy-in and follow along.

Step 1: Create a customer service vision

Effective customer service leaders provide employees with crystal clear direction about what they're supposed to be doing and why it is important.

It's amazing how many leaders skip this step.

  • They use generic terms, like "world-class customer service."

  • They create vision statements that sound clunky and inauthentic. (Big mistake.)

  • They only tell employees what not to do.

It's frustrating and confusing for employees when they lack clarity about what they're supposed to be doing, or how to do it. This tweet from Cathy Lynn captures it perfectly.

Great customer service leaders eliminate confusion.

They work with their teams to create a customer service vision. This is a shared definition of outstanding customer service that gets everyone on the same page. It acts as a compass to consistently give employees clarity and point them in the right direction.

Here's an example from Rackspace, a company that provides computer hosting services.

Rackspace cannot promise that hardware won't break, that software won't fail or that Rackspace will always be perfect. What Rackspace can promise is that if something goes wrong Rackspace will rise to the occasion, take action, and help resolve the issue.

A vision like this provides clear direction, even in unprecedented situations.

When Rackspace's phone system went down, a support rep took the initiative to rise to the occasion, and sent a tweet inviting customers to contact him on his personal phone number. Soon other reps followed suit, sharing their own numbers on Twitter. They supported customers this way for four hours before phone service was restored.

This wasn't scripted or trained. Management didn't ask them to do it. The reps didn't even ask permission. They just knew what to do. (You can read the incredible story here.)

Here’s your first moment of truth: Does your organization or team have a customer service vision?

  • If yes, keep reading below.

  • If no, stop reading this post. Use these resources to create a vision.

Step 2: Engage employees to follow the vision

Effective customer service leaders help employees understand the vision and get them to buy-in to it. On customer-focused teams, employees enthusiastically support the vision and use it to guide their daily work.

One of the biggest obstacles is employee engagement. Customer service leaders tell me it's not easy getting their employees to buy-in. Employees are:

  • demotivated

  • inexperienced

  • too experienced (i.e. set in their ways)

  • burned out

  • have toxic personalities (this is a real problem)

Here's an example of what disengagement looks like. 

I was scheduled to deliver a presentation to a room full of 50 people. The screen, projector, and microphone were all set up in the front of the room, and there were enough tables and chairs for 50 people.

There was just one big problem.

A large pillar blocks the view of participants in a hotel conference room.

The people who set up the room had accomplished all of their tasks (put out 50 chairs, etc.), but they didn't have a clear customer-focused vision.

You can hear the rest of that story in this short video.

Just like "leadership," employee engagement is a murky term where 100 people will have 100 great definitions, but they'll all be different. It's pretty difficult to improve something if nobody agrees on what we’re trying to improve.

So here's a simple definition of employee engagement:

An engaged employee is someone who is purposefully contributing to organizational success.

Look closely, and you'll see that this definition aligns with the function of a leader:

  1. A leader must pick a direction. Engaged employees know the direction.

  2. A leader gets people to follow. Engaged employees are committed.

You need to clearly define success in the form of a customer service vision before you engage your employees (see step one, above). If you skipped this step, you’ve already set your team up for confusion.

In 2017, Clio won the ICMI Global Contact Center Award for best contact center culture. Clio provides legal practice management software, and it has a clear customer service vision:

Our goal is to help our customers succeed and realize the full value of our Product. This results in Evangelists and less Churn.

Clio employees understand this vision and are committed to using it when they serve customers. When a customer called looking for a feature Clio didn't provide, the rep avoided the standard, "I'm sorry, we don't have that feature" line that you get from most software companies. He took time to understand the customer's needs and was able to suggest an even better way for the customer to accomplish her goals.

You can test your employee engagement by asking them three engagement assessment questions:

  1. What is the customer service vision?

  2. What does it mean?

  3. How do you personally contribute?

An engaged employee can give clear and consistent answers to those three questions. So before you go any further, here’s your next moment of truth:

Can your employees give clear and consistent answers to the three engagement assessment questions?

  • If yes, keep reading below.

  • If no, stop reading this post. Use this guide to engage your team.

Step 3: Make it easy to follow the vision

Effective customer service leaders make it easy for employees to deliver outstanding customer service. They ensure the decisions they make are consistent. Employee performance is evaluated by how they contribute to the vision.

Employees get demotivated when they feel they aren’t empowered to be great at service.

One support rep shared her frustration with me:

"I have six minutes to solve their problem, which is not enough time to let them vent and help them feel better."

She explained that management tracked how long she spent on each call, and she wasn’t allowed to go over a six minute average. The rep felt she had to be curt with upset customers, or she'd get in trouble for taking too long on her phone calls. It frustrated her because she wanted to provide good service, but she also wanted to keep her job.

Great customer service leaders use the customer service vision to guide every decision. They align their decisions to eliminate unnecessary friction for their employees. For example, MTS Allstream stopped putting call length metrics in front of its reps and asked them to focus on first contact resolution. The result was employees solved more problems on the first call because they weren’t rushing, but handle time did not significantly increase!

It gets much easier for employees to buy-in to the service culture when everything is aligned.

You can see a great example of alignment in action by visiting Shake Shack. It is a fast casual restaurant chain with a clear customer service vision: 

Stand for something good.

Everything Shake Shack does is aligned around this vision, including the way employees are hired, trained, and empowered. The work effectively as a team, but are also given leeway to engage with guests and create a memorable experience.

When I visited Shake Shack's original location in New York City, I encountered friendly, knowledgeable employees who served really good food. I also saw NBC weatherman Al Roker serving burgers!

Al Roker at Shake Shack in New York City.

You can assess your team's alignment by answering these five questions:

  1. Do you set business goals that are aligned with the customer service vision?

  2. Do you hire employees who are passionate about the vision?

  3. Do you train employees to deliver service that fits the vision?

  4. Are employees empowered to provide service aligned with the vision?

  5. Do you reinforce the vision on a daily basis?

Here’s your next moment of truth: Is your leadership aligned around the customer service vision?

  • If yes, keep reading below.

The Final Step: Commitment

Leaders who are truly committed to building a service-culture stay focused over a long period of time. They earnestly implement a customer service vision, work to engage their employees, and make consistently customer-focused decisions.

Many leaders struggle with commitment.

A few years ago, a senior manager I know attended a week-long leadership course. It wasn't cheap. His company spent $10,000 to send him. He was responsible for a business unit in a competitive industry that brought in millions of dollars in revenue every year, so it seemed worth it.

The leader was wildly enthusiastic about the training when he returned to work. He told me with complete conviction that the training had "changed his life."

I followed-up with him six months later and asked him what concepts from the training course he had implemented. This leader had gushed about a life-changing leadership program, so I wanted to know exactly how he had changed as a leader.

He gave me a sheepish look and admitted he had done nothing.

This manager had gotten so busy that he had neglected to spend time thoughtfully implementing what he learned in the course. He was enthusiastic about the training, but he wasn't truly committed.

This short video highlights the difference between enthusiasm and commitment.

It's up to you decide which type of leader you are going to be. Here’s your final moment of truth.

Are you:

  • Merely enthusiastic?

  • Fully committed?