How to Be an Authentic Customer Service Leader

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There's a scene in the cult-classic movie, Office Space, where a character named Peter is chided by his boss, Lumbergh, for not including the new cover sheet on his TPS report.

Peter quickly acknowledges his mistake, but Lumbergh continues his lecture. He asks, "Did you see the memo about this?"

Peter points to the memo on his desk, again acknowledges his mistake, and assures his boss there's still time to fix the error. But Lumbergh again bulldozes through Peter's clear understanding and agreement and continues to awkwardly lecture him.

He ends with, "I'll go ahead and make sure you get another copy of that memo."

This scene really hit home when I saw the movie in 1999. It was uncanny how it resembled my actual work environment at the time. Our vice president even acted suspiciously like Lumbergh!

When I started my own company a few years later, I named it Toister Performance Solutions to incorporate the initials TPS. I never wanted to forget that soul-sucking management style, and vowed to help customer service teams prevent it.

Here's how you can do your part and be an authentic leader.

Customer service leader facilitating a team meeting.

What are the characteristics of authentic leadership?

Let's start by getting a glimpse of an inauthentic leader. Give yourself a treat and watch that brief scene from Office Space where Peter is chided about his TPS report.

Unlike Lumbergh, authentic leaders are perceived as genuine, committed, and passionate. An authentic leader is easy to get behind because you know exactly where they stand.

In The Service Culture Handbook, I profiled how leaders can act authentically as stewards of their organization's customer-focused culture. These leaders do three things in particular:

  1. Model the culture

  2. Use the culture to guide strategy

  3. Communicate the culture

Model the Culture

Authentic customer service leaders walk the talk. They demonstrate the culture in the way they treat people that provides an example for others to follow. 

My first boss, Christie, provided a great example at the retail store where I worked in high school. She was a consistent presence on the sales floor, demonstrating the right way to serve customers. Christie also treated employees with the same respect and kindness she showed to customers. She was quick to praise employees for doing a good job and was always helping us learn how to do even better. 

The way she consistently modeled the right way to do things made it easy for me to follow her lead. 

Use the Culture to Guide Strategy

Authentic leaders make strategic decisions that are aligned with the culture. They make it clear that "culture" isn't a part-time pet project. It's a way of doing business.

Catherine was a customer service leader who used her company's culture to guide every decision. It influenced how she hired employees, trained them, and empowered them. She was guided by the company's culture when setting goals and prioritizing initiatives.

The result of this consistent decision-making was that the strategy always reinforced the culture and made it easy for employees to do the right thing.

Communicate the Culture

Authentic leaders constantly communicate the culture. This helps employees understand that the culture is extremely important, and ensures no one is confused about the right way to act.

Mike was a CEO who communicated the culture at every opportunity. He reinforced company values at all-hands meetings each quarter. He discussed the culture at every executive team meeting, when having regular lunches with different employee groups, and even in informal conversations. 

Mike talked about the company's core values so often that everyone in the company understood them and knew they were important.

Alternative models of authentic leadership

There are a few other popular authentic leadership models that are slightly different than my own research. 

The most popular comes from Bill George, who identified these five traits of authentic leaders in his book, Authentic Leadership:

  1. Pursuing their purpose with passion

  2. Practicing solid values

  3. Leading with their hearts as well as their heads

  4. Establishing connected relationships

  5. Demonstrating self-discipline

I discovered George's research after publishing my own in The Service Culture Handbook. While the components are slightly different, there are a lot of similarities.

Model the Culture

  • Pursuing their purpose with passion

  • Practicing solid values

  • Demonstrating self-discipline

Use the Culture to Guide Strategy

  • Pursuing their purpose with passion

  • Leading with their hearts as well as their heads

  • Demonstrating self-discipline

Communicate the Culture

  • Leading with their hearts as well as their heads

  • Establishing connected relationships

  • Demonstrating self-discipline

The last trait, demonstrating self-discipline, is essential. It takes a tremendous amount of will to consistently stay on course when leading a team, a department, or even an entire organization.

Take Action

This post outlines a framework for authentic leadership based on my research, observations, and experience. You can do a few things to put this into action.