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?

Why Service Leaders Need to Be Role Models

The exact words the restaurant manager used were, "I'm not arguing with you."

Funny, because arguing was exactly what he was doing. My wife and I were celebrating the wrap of filming for my latest training video at a nice steakhouse. Both of our first steaks were overdone and the manager had offered to prepare us new ones.

Sally's steak was prepared correctly the second time, but my replacement was very rare, even though I had ordered medium rare. I sent it back to the kitchen once more, but the steak still came back rare. 

I wasn't going to send it back a third time.

The manager checked on our table. He seemed frustrated with me that I wasn't happy and insinuated that I was being too picky. In our ensuing conversation, he revealed he had asked the kitchen to prepare my second steak rare because he didn't think I understood what medium rare really was.

"I'm not arguing with you," he said, "but your first steak was medium rare."

That statement cost him a customer. Taking my steak off the bill wasn't enough at this point to repair his rudeness.

The worst part was our server was handling the situation just fine until the manager stepped in. The manager was setting a poor example for his staff.

Two small wooden flags rest on a plate, one says "M.Rare" and the other reads "Rare."

The Impact of a Negative Role Model

Leaders set the tone through their actions. In this case, the manager did several things that sent the wrong message to his staff.

  • He undercut trust by intervening when our server was handling it fine.
  • He displayed rudeness by jumping into our conversation without first introducing himself.
  • He exhibited selfishness by putting my replacement steak in as rare without telling our server.

I asked a community of hospitality professionals on the I'm Your Server, Not Your Servant Facebook group to weigh in on their experience working in similar situations.

People generally shared that these types of experiences made them want to work someplace else. A few also suggested the drama and mistrust created by the manager was likely to continue well past our evening at the restaurant. Several also thought it might create tension between the servers and kitchen staff.

All of this came from the manager's poor reaction that unnecessarily escalated what should have been a minor situation.

We noticed a change in our service level after our interaction with the manager. Our server avoided our table as much as she brought us the check as soon as our meal was finished, as if she could not wait to be done with us. 

There was no final apology or a confirmation of any deductions from the check (my steak was removed). She didn't make an effort to resolve the situation on a high note by asking us to come back again. She simply processed our check and wordlessly dropped it back off at our table.


Positive Role Model Actions

There are many things you can do to be a positive role model.

The first thing you should do is model customer service skills when interacting with both customers and employees. Treat people exactly the way you want your employees to treat customers. Your team is looking to you for guidance and your actions will speak louder than words.

Positive role models also take the same training they require employees to take. This move brings three benefits:

  1. You'll have the same skills as your employees, so you can model them.
  2. Your presence sends the message that the training is important.
  3. You'll be better able to coach employees after the training.

Finally, it's critical to support your employees.

One of the worst things the restaurant manager did was undercut his server by stepping into the situation she was already handling and then blind-siding her by deliberately putting in my replacement steak at the wrong temperature.

Here's how I've seen other restaurant managers handle a similar situation.

They start by talking with the server off to the side to get the story and see if there's anything they need to do. Then they come to the table, introduce themselves, and confirm the server is rectifying the situation.

This action supports the server while still sending a positive message to the guests that the manager is monitoring the situation and is there to help. 

Work on these role model actions and you'll likely see higher levels of service from your employees in response.

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.

The Biggest Reason Why Employees Don't Do What They're Told

Jose came out to my house to replace a corroded section of gas pipe. Before starting the job, he placed a small fire extinguisher near the work space.

Jose explained it was a new safety procedure. Technicians were required to have a fire extinguisher nearby for all gas repairs.

I marveled at Jose's diligence. 

He had being doing this job for more than 25 years, yet he was following a new procedure even though his boss wasn't watching. 

Many employees, especially those with a lot of experience, find themselves cutting corners. They get set in their ways and don't like to change.

It's frustrating when employees don't do what you ask them to do. You email a new procedure or share an important customer service tip in a staff meeting but employees don't do it. At least not consistently.

The big question is why? 

In many cases, it comes down to how the task was communicated. Here's what can go wrong and how you can fix it.

Communication Assessment

Just for fun, let's do a little communication assessment.

Imagine you had to communicate a new policy or procedure to your employees. It's not overly complicated, but it's something that employees should start doing right away.

Which of the following communication methods are you likely to use?

  1. Email or other written communication.
  2. Visually demonstrate the new procedure for employees.
  3. Discuss the new procedure with employees using open-ended questions.
  4. Observe employees using the new procedure to check their understanding.
  5. Verbally explain the procedure to employees.

Most managers rely on written communication like email. They might throw in a dash of verbal communication, but they're unlikely to rely on other forms.

Here's how Jose's manager communicated the new safety procedure.

  1. He provided everyone with a written copy of the procedure. 
  2. The procedure was verbally explained in a team meeting.
  3. The explanation was aided by using a fire extinguisher as a visual reference. 
  4. Employees discussed the procedure's importance. 
  5. The manager verified that employees were following the procedure whenever he visited a job site.

Jose's manager did two things that many leaders don't. First, he used multiple methods of communication to reinforce the message. Second, he ensured that the communication was two-way, so that employees were active participants.

This may seem like a lot of extra work for the manager, but it's essential to take time to make sure employees get the message.


Communication Goals

Employees often don't do what they're told to do because their manager has miscommunicated the task. 

Managers should have two goals when they ask an employee to do something.

  1. Ensure understanding
  2. Gain agreement

First, you want to be sure your employees understand what you want them to do. That's difficult to achieve with one-way communication like email. 

Jose's manager used the team discussion to ensure that everyone understood the new procedure.

Second, you want to gain your employees' agreement. To achieve this goal, you often need to get employees to understand why you are asking them to do something. Once again, two-way communication is far more effective than one-way communication.

Jose agreed to follow the new procedure because he clearly understood why it was important. He'd been around long enough to know why it made sense to have a fire extinguisher handy when doing work on a gas line.


Additional Resources

Miscommunication is just one of many causes of poor employee performance that can easily be fixed. This quick fix checklist can help you find other root causes too.

Customer service leaders often use my weekly customer service tips to reinforce good customer service skills with their teams. The tips arrive via email, but managers augment that written communication with two-way dialogue in team meetings and one-on-one discussions.

You might also enjoy this short video that explains why employees might not even be aware there's a problem.

One Thing Great Customer Service Managers Do Differently

Great customer service managers always seem cool, calm, and collected.

This flies in the face of reason. The typical manager spends most of their day putting out fires or running to the next meeting. There never seems to be enough time to get everything done. 

How can these elite managers remain calm? Where do they find the time to coach, train, and develop their employees?

Great managers do at least one thing very differently than everyone else.

Meet The Ever-Present Teddy

My wife, Sally, and I traveled in December to spend Christmas with family. We stopped for a night at a resort on our way back home.

That's where we met Teddy. He was a supervisor who seemed to be everywhere we went.

We first met Teddy when we arrived at our room. He and another associate had just dropped off some fruit as a welcome amenity. Teddy and his colleague took a moment to help bring our bags in and give us a brief orientation.

We later saw Teddy at dinner. Our server noticed that we enjoyed wine. She mentioned that Teddy was helping her learn more about wine too. Teddy was working in the restaurant, so he stopped by our table to chat about wine for a moment.

The next morning, we saw Teddy in the restaurant again at breakfast. He spotted us and came over to our table to say hello. We talked for a moment before he went off to show a server how to set up a table for a large group.

Every time we saw Teddy, he was doing one thing that great customer service leaders do differently. Did you spot it?

He was constantly training and coaching employees. 

Teddy showed an associate how to deliver an amenity to a room so the associate could do it himself. He helped a server learn about wine so she could serve her guests more confidently. He helped another server set up for a large party so she knew what to do the next time.

Teddy never did the work for them. He also didn't leave them to struggle by themselves. He did the task with them side-by-side so he could show them the right way to do things through hands-on instruction.


Show, Don't Take

Managers often make the mistake of doing their employees' work for them.

They take on a problem and fix it because they know how. It's an instinctive move that feels faster when the manager is pressed for time.

This causes two issues. 

First, the employee doesn't learn how to solve the problem or complete the task. This leads to the second problem - the manager has all but guaranteed that they're going to have to deal with the same issue again.

I call this the manager's paradox. You can either spend time you don't have developing your employees now, or spend twice as much time fixing problems later.

Managers like Teddy don't do their employees' work for them. They'll often do employees' work with them, but this is different. It's part of an ongoing process to delegate, empower, train, observe, and coach employee performance. 

It's hard work, but the reward is a motivated and capable team of employees.



There's a certain bravery involved when your plate is full, but you take a moment to develop yourself and your team. It causes short-term pain, but long-term gain.

There are many resources available to help you elevate your skill as a customer service leader. This blog is one. You can subscribe via email if you haven't already.

I've also compiled a list of 51 terrific resources - books, websites, blogs, and other tools.

You may always want to check out the Managing a Customer Service Team training course. It's a video-based class on You'll need a subscription, but you can get a 10-day trial.

Here's a preview:

Five Common Assumptions About Employees That Are Totally Wrong

The restaurant manager approached the table. "How's everything?" he asked.

One of the guests told him she was disappointed her salad was soaked in heavy dressing. She didn't want it replaced because the rest of her party were already halfway through their meals.

The manager brought her a free dessert as a goodwill gesture. He assumed the dessert would be a welcome surprise. He overlooked the fact that the guest had ordered a salad in an effort to eat healthy. The dessert was completely wasted.

Assumptions can be dangerous.

In some ways it's natural. Our brains are wired to naturally jump to conclusions. An over-eagerness to please our customers makes this even worse. And, once we land on a verdict, something called confirmation bias makes it hard to change our minds.

This isn't just a problem with customers. Customer service leaders often make dangerous assumptions about their employees that turn out to be totally wrong. 

Here are five examples to avoid.

Assumption #1: They Know What You Want

Employees aren't mind readers. They don't know what you expect them to do unless you explain it clearly and confirm their understanding.

Many leaders assume their expectations are obvious. They don't spend enough time setting expectations or establishing a customer service vision because they assume their employees already know.

In some cases, leaders over-communicate. They create confusion by providing so much information that employees can't tell what's important and what's not. 

You can avoid this assumption by doing two things:

First, verify your employees understand your expectations. Quiz them, test them, or observe them. Just make sure they get it.

Second, make sure they agree. Have them tell you what they plan to do to achieve expectations. 

Assumption #2: They Need Incentives

Incentives create all sorts of problems.

There's a mountain of research to back this up. Outstanding books like Drive and Predictably Irrational chronicle study after study where incentives make performance worse, not better.

Yet, customer service leaders continue to assume that employees need incentives to give their best performance. This comes from a sense that employees require motivation.

My own research suggests the opposite is true. Employees are naturally motivated. The real problem is demotivation. Customer service managers should focus their energy on making sure demotivation doesn't happen.

Assumption #3: They Care

This one is the opposite of #2. Not every employee is fully committed.

Many customer service employees don't consider their job a career. Some people just end up in customer service. Others view their job as a convenient way to pay the bills while they go to school for something better.

These folks aren't highly motivated. They won't move mountains or leap over tall buildings to make customers happy. They'll do the minimum and that's it. 

Customer service leaders need to be careful not to assume every employee is gung-ho about service. If you want to these people to perform, you need to make it easy for them to deliver outstanding customer service.

Assumption #4: They Need Training

We all have our pet peeves. My pet peeve is that training is the solution to every performance problem.

Managers often assume that's all that's needed. They think that training will someone "fix" employees who aren't providing great service.

I really wish that were true. I love training. I've been doing it for more than twenty years. Heck, I even volunteer to train in my spare time. 

Sadly, training can only fix a small percentage of employee performance challenges. My own estimates show that training is only responsible for one percent of customer service.

What should you do instead of training? Check out my next level service action plan to get step-by-step instructions.

Assumption #5: They're Content

No complaints doesn't equal no problems.

Many customer service leaders are surprised when a talented employee suddenly leaves the organization. They had assumed the employee was happy because he or she had never complained.

Some companies do exit interviews to find out what went wrong. These only help prevent the same thing from happening in the future.

A better approach is to conduct stay interviews. Sit down with your best employees and find out what's keeping them. Take time to learn about their goals and ambitions. You might be able to use that information to help them stay.

Are There More Assumptions to Avoid?

These are just five common examples. What others would you add to the list?

10 Ways to Make Customer Service Easy

Customer service leaders have one real job. They should make it easy for their employees to serve customers.

That can be a tall order. 

Customer service employees have to navigate a jungle of obstacles. Angry customers, defective products, and corporate silos are just a few reasons why customer service is hard.

A good customer service leader takes a figurative machete to those obstacles and clears a path through the brush for their team.

If you’re a customer service leader, here are ten things you can do.

#1 Define Outstanding Service

Don’t assume everyone agrees on what outstanding customer service looks like. Work with your team to create a shared definition. This definition, called a Customer Service Vision, acts as a compass to point everyone in the same direction. (You can use this handy worksheet to help you.)


#2 Measure Progress

Everyone says customer service is important to the business, but it’s not really important until its measured. You can engage your team by setting SMART goals around key metrics. Good goals should make it easy for employees to understand what's important, and what's not.


#3 Act on Customer Feedback

Here’s a dirty secret: 95 percent of companies collect customer satisfaction data, but only 10 percent actually use that data to improve service. This is a potential gold mine of data to help you fix problems that irk your customers and frustrate your employees.


#4 Enlist Your Employees

There’s a good chance that your employees know the biggest obstacles to serving customers. They probably have some pretty good ideas for solving these problems, too. Unfortunately, many employees don't share this information. The simple solution? Ask them. They’ll be happy to share.


#5 Hire for Fit

Customer service gets a lot easier when you love your job. Pay special attention to hiring for culture fit. Figure out what's in your organization's unique secret sauce and then design your hiring process to find people who will love being there. Your goal is to find people who will love to do what you are asking them to do.


#6 Train Better

There’s a lot of crappy training going on. Some managers don’t have the time. Other managers just don’t know how. Avoid letting employees get lost on the learning curve and you’ll make their jobs much easier and more enjoyable.


#7 Encourage Quiet Time

Many customer service jobs require constant multitasking. Unfortunately, this causes a problem called Directed Attention Fatigue or DAF. The symptoms are identical to ADD, which isn’t great for customer service. The only solution is rest, which is why many companies are creating quiet rooms to help their employees recover.


#8 Fix Broken Products

It’s hard to serve with a smile when your product stinks. A recent analysis on the CX Journey blog showed the number one difference between engaged and disengaged baseball fans was success on the field (i.e. product). Work with other departments to put out a better product and service gets a lot easier.


#9 Fix Broken Systems

In his book, Strategic Customer Service, John Goodman estimates that as much as 60 percent of service failures are attributed to broken systems. It could be an unmonitored email box or chronically missed delivery appointments. A failure to fix these problems is like tying your hands behind your back and then trying to win an arm wrestling contest.


#10 Empower Employees

There’s a huge lack of empowerment in customer service. A recent report by ICMI revealed that 86 percent of contact centers don’t empower their employees to provide outstanding service. One reason managers don’t empower employees is it’s easy in theory, but difficult in practice. The good news is you can use this handy guide to help you.

The lazy customer service manager

I’m feeling a bit lazy. My mission is to write this blog post, but I really don’t want to invest the effort necessary to write a good one. The way I see it, I have three options:

  1. Republish something I’ve already written for someone else
  2. Embed a funny YouTube video that somehow makes a point about service
  3. Draw inspiration from someone else.

Let’s go with option 3 because I already have someone in mind: The Lazy Customer Service Manager. Before I go on, please excuse any snarkiness. I’m too lazy to edit that out today.


The Lazy Customer Service Manager: A Profile

I’ve met a lot of customer service managers. The great ones work tirelessly to help their team deliver world class service and the results speak for themselves.

The lazy ones work tirelessly to find shortcuts. Most of those shortcuts don’t work. Their results speak for themselves too.

Here are a few examples.

Perfect Attendance Awards

The idea behind this motivational gimmick is that people need extra motivation to come to their lousy jobs on a regular basis. This seems to be especially popular in call centers. Perhaps this is because very few people have ever said, “You work in a call center?! Is it as glamorous as it sounds?”

The lazy manager thinks, “I know how to solve our absenteeism problem. We’ll create a perfect attendance award where everyone who has perfect attendance for a month will be entered into a drawing. The winners of the drawing will get to spin a prize wheel for a chance to win fabulous prizes such as candy, gift cards, and (ironically) a day off with pay.”

That was a real example. I so wish I was making this up.

Great customer service managers take a slightly different approach. They focus on making the workplace a great place to be so people will naturally want to come to work. 

Suggestion Boxes

There are a number of reasons why the lazy manager will put out a suggestion box. Perhaps the manager read an article somewhere that the best companies ask their employees for input. Maybe Office Depot is having a sale on suggestion boxes. It could be that the manager is just looking for a way to get employees to stop complaining directly to him. The possibilities are endless.

One lazy manager I knew thought he was enlightened when he promised to post a written response to each suggestion on the team bulletin board. This practice quickly stopped when the vast majority of suggestions turned out to be complaints about working conditions, co-workers, and even the boss.

Again, I really wish I was making this up.

Great customer service managers skip the suggestion box and talk to their employees on a regular basis. They recognize that a true “open door” policy requires them to walk through their door and create an environment where employees will be comfortable enough share their candid opinions.

Incidentally, I did Google “suggestion box” as part of my exhaustive research for this blog post. Sharlyn Lauby has a good post on her HR Bartender blog called 7 Considerations for Suggestion Box Programs.

The Angry Memo

Serious customer service issues can sometimes arise. The lazy manager often addresses these issues via an angry memo that’s emailed to everyone on the team or perhaps posted on a bulletin board. Typically, only one or two people on the team are actually to blame, but the lazy manager finds it safer to get everyone involved rather than speak privately with the people who really need to hear the message.

One example comes from a restaurant in Boston where the owner allegedly posted this memo on an employee bulletin board in response to a bevy of customer complaints:

“You are the LOSERS!!!” … “Change or be changed. Please, don’t force your termination for the holidays.”

You can read more about the story on Patrick Maguire’s I’m Your Server Not Your Servant blog.

Great customer service managers skip the angry memo and constructively address issues as soon as they arise. For example, a customer complaint might be treated as a learning experience and met with a discussion on ways to improve service quality.

What are other characteristics of a lazy customer service manager?

Some might call this last part lazy since I’m basically asking you to finish this post for me by leaving your comments. I prefer to call it crowd-sourcing.

Whatever the term, please do share your own examples of signs that a customer service manager is being lazy.

Ten bad leadership habits that lead to poor service

There are people for whom customer service is a core value, one that is always present in their personal and professional lives. When these types of people lead customer service teams, their teams tend to work magic.

There are also people who don't truly believe in customer service. When these people lead customer service teams, service failures tend to be the norm. They may talk a good game to try to convince their customers, their employees, and even themselves that service is indeed important. However, their true colors are eventually revealed by their bad habits. 

Here are ten examples of bad leadership habits that cause service failures:

  1. Unable to clearly articulate what outstanding customer service looks like.
  2. Too impatient to do things right.
  3. Focused on catching employees doing things wrong instead of helping them do things right.
  4. Too busy to provide employees with training, coaching, or direction.
  5. Failing to respond to email and voice mail in a timely manner.
  6. Allowing employees to continuously provide poor service.
  7. Disciplining employees for behaviors they regularly exhibit themselves.
  8. Treating employees disrespectfully.
  9. Asking employees to do things they wouldn't do themselves.
  10. Making excuses for any of the above.

What bad habits would you add to this list?

Jeff Toister is the author of Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It. The book is scheduled to be released on November 1.

You can learn more about the book at or pre-order a copy on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or Powell's Books.

Study finds the lack of feedback is, uh, lacking...

A recent study by Leadership IQ found that 66% of employees feel they have too little interaction with their boss. A whopping 78% of employees surveyed did not have a clear idea of whether their boss feels their job performance is where it should be. That's right -- a majority of employees want to be managed more, not less.

The feedback employees do get is often lacking. Employees want to hear more than just 'good work' or 'you need to do better'.  When receiving positive feedback, 53% reported it wasn't specific enough to help them repeat the good performance. Sixty-five percent of employees receiving criticism felt their bosses didn't provide enough direct feedback to help them improve.

Managers are often too busy, afraid to give direct feedback, or are worried about being viewed as a micromanager by their employees. Unfortunately, this study indicates the hands-off approach can lead to real performance problems.

What can be done?

The first step is coming to terms with reality. In my own travels I hear too many leaders dismissing the art of feedback as 'too elementry' or 'common sense' and not something that deserves attention, but reality clearly doesn't match this perception. You can never get better at something if you don't think you need to.

The next step is learning how to give specific, actionable feedback. Many leaders struggle because they never receive formal training in this area, but there are plenty of resources available, including our High Performance Management workshop.

The final step is developing the habit of giving frequent constructive feedback. As the numbers in this study show, Corporate America has a long way to go.