How to Get Promoted into Customer Service Leadership

Getting your first shot at a leadership position can be tough.

A few Customer Service Tip of the Week subscribers have recently asked me for advice on getting promoted. There was a time when a big part of my job was helping people advance in their careers, so I was able to draw upon my own experience. I also reached out to other customer service leaders for some additional perspective.

The advice all comes down to three things that can help you earn that promotion.

A boss shaking hands with a newly promoted employee.

Be a Role Model

You have to demonstrate the ability to deliver exceptional customer service if you want to become a customer service leader.

Not just good, really good. On-brand, front page of the company website good. 

Being a role model involves demonstrating the right way to do things while earning the respect of your peers. Customer service leaders tell me this is a big factor when considering someone for promotion.

Stephanie, a hotel general manager, asks aspiring leaders, "Are you well respected among your peers since you will become their leader?" This is an important consideration because getting a promotion frequently means your coworkers are now your subordinates.

Murphy, a support department supervisor, looks for "Someone who peers gravitate to naturally as a resource." This suggests that coworkers already view you as a leader.

Nate, a customer experience director, echoed this sentiment. Nate told me that he recently promoted a frontline employee. "The one quality that stood above all others was his ability to motivate and inspire his peers."

Do a Gap Analysis

This involves looking at the skills required for the job you want and comparing them to the skills you already have. The difference between the two is your skill gap.

This analysis will help you identify skills you'll need to develop to be a strong candidate for the new position. Be honest in your assessment. The standard should be, "Can I prove I have this skill to an interviewer?"

Michael Pace, a customer service consultant, shared this advice on his blog:

"Find out what are the technical skills your manager does today. Offer to help them next time they need to accomplish a like task. Create a personal development action plan. If you are promoted, you may need to use this skill on day 1."

Many customer service professionals have used training videos on LinkedIn Learning or Lynda.com to help develop their skills. For example, there's an entire series of courses devoted to becoming a customer service manager.

One word of caution here.

Any training you do should be used immediately. That's because training is a use it or lose it proposition. If you take a class, but don't put the content to work, you'll quickly forget what you've learned.

Add Value

Many employees make the mistake of asking for a promotion because they think they’ve put in their time.

People get promoted because the hiring manager thinks that employee can add value. A leadership position is not a prize to be won through years of service. It's something that's earned.

Sallie, a customer operations director, looks for people who are "Humble, hungry, and smart." These are people who demonstrate a passion for leadership, and can find ways to make things better.

Murphy described the ideal candidate as someone who "raises solutions to problems" as opposed to just identifying problems. 

From my own experience, people who get promoted have found a way to become indispensable to the hiring manager. Find out what the boss’s goals are and then figure out how to make the boss look good.

Conclusion

Please drop me a line if you follow any of this advice. I'm rooting for you to land that big promotion, but I also want to know what works for you.

And if you do get promoted, here's my advice for new customer service leaders.


Which should come first, leadership or technical skills?

Note: This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

This question came up during a recent conversation with senior training leaders. If you are developing a leader, should you first focus on growing their leadership or their technical skills? 

It's also a challenge that I often hear from Customer Service Tip of the Week subscribers, many of whom are customer service leaders, both experienced and aspiring.

The answer is crystal clear, and it's not even close.

Group of professionals attending a leadership development workshop.

But first, let me share a little about my background and how I've come to see firsthand what works and what doesn't. 

I was the Director of Training and Development for a mid-sized company with 4,200 employees prior to starting my own business. The biggest part of my role was preparing supervisors and managers for promotion, and helping to guide them once they got there. 

Working with hundreds of leaders helped me see what enabled people to be successful in leadership positions.

Today, I'm obsessed with service cultures. The leaders I interviewed and researched for my book, The Service Culture Handbook, came from many industries and backgrounds, but they also had a lot in common in terms of their skillsets.

So back to the question. Should you focus on leadership or technical skills first?

The hands-down answer is technical skills. The answer may surprise you, but I've learned there's good reason why technical skills must come first when developing a leader.

Think of technical skills such as how to run payroll, write a schedule, or evaluate performance as the machine that runs the business. Leadership skills such as building trust, inspiring employees, and giving feedback are the oil that lubricates the machine and helps it run smoothly. There's no question that the machine will run much better with oil (i.e. good leadership), but without a machine you have no business.

Here are some practical examples.

If I had to choose between teaching a manager to run payroll or build trust, I'd first focus on payroll. Employees come to work to get paid (at least in part), and nothing erodes trust faster than a paycheck that's missing or short. 

Things do occasionally go wrong or questions arise when it comes to payroll, which is when building trust is critical for leaders. Knowing technical procedures to resolve those issues provides important context for leaders to develop their trust-building skills.

Vision is another example. There's the technical component, which is actually writing a customer service vision. There's also a leadership component, which is communicating the vision and inspiring employees to follow it. 

There's nothing to inspire people if you don't have the technical know-how to write a good vision in the first place.

The vision writing process I use with my clients includes seeking input and buy-in from employees, which naturally combines both technical and leadership elements. It's the vision creation process itself that provides critical context for leaders to develop and exercise their leadership skills.

Learning of any kind happens best when there's context. When you give leaders technical skills, they establish a very important context to develop their abilities as leaders.

Without those skills, there's no context for leaders to apply any leadership skills they try to learn.


Five Ways Leaders Unwittingly Sabotage Their Teams

The association president decided to make an informal speech to the crowd gathered at the happy hour. He realized the people towards the back couldn't see him, so he grabbed one of the hotel's banquet chairs and stood on it.

Standing on chairs is dangerous. Every year, numerous employees suffer broken arms, legs, ankles, and other serious injuries sustained when they fell off a chair they were standing on at work. 

The president set a poor example with his behavior. When he asked a conference organizer to say a few words after his speech, she hesitated a moment and then reluctantly followed the president's lead and stood on the chair as well.

Leaders should understand employees are paying attention to the way a leader behaves. Here are five examples of leadership behaviors can than undermine your message to the team.

Angry boss yelling at an employee.

Service

Employees look to see how the boss treats customers and even other employees. If the boss treats people poorly, employees will, too.

One customer service leader regularly belittled his employees. He disparaged them for poor service, gossiped about employees to coworkers, and generally acted like a bully if he didn't get his way. Even worse, he shied away from customer interaction, even going so far as to feign important meetings to avoid talking to a customer. Needless to say, employees were scared of the boss and did just enough not to get noticed.

Employees look to their leaders to model outstanding service. As a leader, it's up to you to demonstrate the appropriate behaviors when working with customers or even fellow employees.

 

Communication

Employees tend to understand how important something is by how and when you talk about it.

One restaurant manager rarely talked about service with his employees. He spent most of his time discussing compliance issues such as attendance, following procedures, and adhering to policies. His tone was consistently negative. 

One day, the manager sent a nasty memo to his employees addressing a string of poor Yelp reviews. He criticized employees for their performance and threatened to fire people for continued bad service. The memo was the first time he had communicated anything about service in a long time, and it only served to demotivate employees.

Take a moment to review your own communication. Think of the emails, verbal discussions, and team meetings you had in the past week. What were the most frequent topics? Do you tend to use a tone of encouragement or compliance?

 

Tolerance

Employees will look to their leader to see what is tolerated and what is not.

An employee in one organization routinely generated complaints for poor customer service. Her boss wanted to hold her accountable, but the business unit's vice president overrode the decision. The vice president felt the employees' sales numbers were too valuable to the unit's scorecard, and she didn't want to undermine her unit's successful image by correcting a top producer. This send the clear message that poor service was fine as long as you made your sales numbers look good.

Think about what negative behaviors you allow. Leaders often make excuses to themselves, brushing away minor transgressions and being too minor to worry about. Beware that tolerating something small often sets the stage for even worse performance in the future.

 

Enthusiasm

Employees look to their leader for enthusiasm.

I'll never forget the first boss I ever had, Christi. I was working in a retail clothing store while I was in high school and just starting to learn about customer service. At the end of every day, I noticed how Christi would walk around the store and thank every employee for doing a good job. She always displayed such enthusiasm for working at the store that her employees felt a strong urge to do a great job for her.

Other managers have the opposite effect. They are consistently negative or overly serious, which are usually not ideal attitudes for employees to convey to customers. One executive flat out refused to say "Good morning" to employees as they arrived for work and passed her in the halls. Those managers unconsciously influence employees to act the same way.

Consider what attitudes you display to your employees. Are you enthusiastic? Negative? Serious? Authentic?

 

Decisions

Employees place a lot of weight on the hidden message behind a leader's decisions.

A software company's support team leader told his team that service was a top priority. Yet the leader consistently made decisions designed to save money. The support team was understaffed, undertrained, and lacked some of the tools needed to serve customers at a high level. Employees soon realized that service wasn't a top priority at all. The real priority was short-term cost savings.

A leader at another software company made a completely different set of decisions. He worked with his support team to create a customer service vision, which is a shared definition of outstanding service. He then used that vision to guide other key decisions such as goal setting, hiring, training, procedures, and even his communication as a leader. Support employees in that company quickly realized that service was truly the top priority.

Pay careful attention to your own decisions and how you make them. Your employees are watching and will understand your true priorities by the direction you take.

 

Take Action!

Take a moment to complete a personal inventory of the behaviors you've modeled in the past week. These questions can be a powerful assessment of your performance as a leader.

  • Service: Do you consistently model a strong service culture?
  • Communication: Do you consistently have positive communication about service?
  • Tolerance: Do you tolerate negative or inappropriate behavior?
  • Enthusiasm: Do you regularly display genuine enthusiasm for serving customers?
  • Decisions: Do you use service as a top priority when making decisions?

The results can be eye opening.


Why You Need Danger to Be Great at Service

It was a Monday afternoon, and droves of hikers were ascending San Diego's Cowles Mountain. 

It's one of the most popular hikes in town. You're rewarded with sweeping views of San Diego, the mountains, the ocean, and even Tijuana after a moderately steep 1.5 mile trek.

There are some drawbacks. The trail is dusty and worn from constant use. The beauty at the top is a little marred by the crowds. Loud conversations and even louder music can pierce the serenity. (Seriously, who brings music on a hike?!)

One peak and another 1.25 miles from Cowles stands Pyles. That's where I sat in blissful silence, soaking in the same view.

Fear was the only reason I had the entire trail to myself.

It's this same fear that causes so many customer service leaders to follow the crowd. It feels safe to do what everyone else is doing. 

Their reward is getting stuck on average.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Fear Leads to Average

The American Customer Satisfaction Index currently stands at 77 on a 0-100 scale.

What does it take to be at 77? Probably a few things:

  • A decent product or service
  • Reasonably competent management
  • A customer service operation that follows standard practices

The challenge is there's nothing distinctive about average. A 77 won't set you apart from the competition. Your company won't be able to leverage the awesome power of word of mouth marketing. 

So why not do more? Why not truly be different?

The answer is fear. In my experience, executives typically make decisions about customer service based on two big fears. 

The first is money. Spending money is understandably scary. It's even scarier when the return is uncertain. While there are a number of ways to calculate the financial impact of customer service, it can be difficult. 

Which leads to the second fear, doing something stupid. Executives repeatedly turn to benchmarks for help making uncertain decisions. The rationale is it's harder to criticize something if everyone else is doing it.

The problem, of course, with following benchmarks is it inevitably leads to average.

 

How Elite Service Leaders Embrace Danger

The best customer service champions take calculated risks.

They aren't reckless. These leaders simply understand that rising above average means doing something different. The wisdom of the crowd will only take you so far.

I heard this consistent theme when I interviewed people for The Service Culture Handbook. Rather than following the crowds, elite service leaders established a clear picture of success and continuously took calculated steps to get there.

Here are just a few examples of things that customer-focused leaders do differently than the average leader:

  • They constantly focus on culture, over a long period of time.
  • They use data to confront tough realities, and find ways to improve.
  • They take time to hire and train people the right way.
  • They invest in making it easier for employees to serve.
  • They develop empathy by taking time to talk directly to customers.

I imagine none of these items seem particularly revolutionary. The tough part is making all of them part of your day as a leader. The average leader merely pays lip service to these actions. The elite leader obsesses over them.

Which brings me back to my hike.

To get to Pyles, you must first hike Cowles. This means your hike will take longer. Some people are content with only going as far as the rest of the crowd, just like in service.

The trail to Pyles is well-marked. There's a sign at the top of Cowles. It's on the large trail map posted at the foot of the Cowles trail. People can see the trail but don't venture farther because they don't see other people doing it, just like in service.

 

Action Item

Set a course. Do something you know is right and stick to it. Here are some ideas if you aren't sure where to start.

It can be scary to go it alone. It's also exhilarating.