Tenets of Customer-Focused Leadership
Customer-focused leaders listen a little more to their customers and to the front-line staff.
Afew weeks ago, I received a call from a brand consultant who needed a customer service intervention for his client. The client, a parastatal with various front office operations, was experiencing challenges in customer service. It appeared something was not right. The brand consultant was convinced that what his client needed was a one-day training for all the front office staff. I was of a different opinion. I felt that it was important to investigate the root cause of the customer service challenges, instead of rushing in to train the staff.
My proposal was, therefore, to meet with the leadership to understand exactly what steps they had taken to address the challenges. How customer-focused was the leadership? Was everyone pulling in the same direction? Had they created the right environment and was the team getting the right support? These questions relate to what I consider the tenets of a customerfocused leadership and they constitute the starting point to achieving customer service excellence.
I believe that if the leadership is customer-focused, it is much easier to get everyone else in tandem. Management guru, Peter Drucker, believed that because the leader's job was to create the desired future for an organisation, the leader needed to be intimately involved with the direction of his/her organisation. At the centre of this intimate involvement is the need for leaders to focus on the customers and to show the way in the customer service agenda.
Unfortunately, in most customer service circles, there is too much talk and little action coming from the leaders. For leaders to demonstrate customer focus, they must walk the customer service talk in their daily interactions with their staff and with customers. In doing so, they can influence their followers to follow suit.
Lead and let others follow
Customer-focused leadership transcends pulling in the same direction, to having clarity on what the endgame looks like. The leadership team has a key responsibility of making it clear to the rest of the staff what is expected of them, what the goals are and what the future looks like. The endgame may be 100 per cent satisfaction, zero complaints, money-back guarantee, delightful customer experiences or 100 per cent customer retention. Everybody needs to be aligned with the endgame.
Training of front office staff by itself is not adequate and the enthusiasm may not last long if the process is not supported by the leadership. Customer-focused leaders listen a little more to their customers and to the front-line staff. They take action where needed before seeking external help.
A key responsibility of any leader is decision-making. Leaders make many decisions every day, some major and others minor. The strategic direction of their organisation involves many decisions, both major and minor. In itself, the choice of the strategic direction is the most important decision that leaders must make. Many customer-focused and forward-looking leaders pay special attention to how their organisations interact with customers as a whole.
They do not leave this to the front-line staff. Many decide that their organisations will be customer-focused, but only a few take the steps to make this a reality. Those that set themselves apart get involved in reviewing major decision that impact customers.
Customer-focused leaders recommend review of procedures, set standards and broad policy guidelines for the front-line team to serve customers with excellence. High-level decisions such as the choice of supporting structures, the customer service lead person, the resource allocation, the choice of technology etc, all have a major impact on the overall customer experience.
Owning the culture-change process
In addition, customer-focused leaders are aware that service improvements take time and involve change. Change does not just happen. But as lead change agents, they need to be at the forefront of initiating it.
I have held many training sessions to support a company-wide customer service change efforts. The most successful ones have been those that have involved everyone, starting with the leadership team. The leadership team's involvement in mapping out the desired customer experience is a powerful exercise. In addition, the participation of senior
executives in facilitating the training sessions for other staff is valuable. Leaders make change happen faster when they inspire others to action and when they communicate effectively across the entire organisation. Leaders have a greatest influence on their followers much less than trainers would have. Leaders, therefore, have a responsibility to initiate relationships with those they lead during the change process. They also have the burden of maintaining these relationships and creating long-lasting, and strong communication linkages.
Finally, leaders own the culture of their organisations. They must, therefore, have a solid value system and make their values clear to all. If they value customers, it will be evident in their actions and even reactions to situations.
For leaders to demonstrate customer focus, they must walk the customer service talk in their daily interactions with their staff and with customers.
Furthermore, customer-focused leaders are expected to be good role models for service excellence. If leaders do not demonstrate the culture they desire, it is unlikely that a training session would make their subordinates live by it. Leaders have a major responsibility of creating a conducive environment where everyone in the organisation is able to reach their full potential. To remain customer-focused, leaders must take up customer service as one of their key responsibilities. They must also be held accountable for its delivery. A healthy culture not only results in improved productivity; it also has demonstrable impact on the financial wellbeing of an organisation.
To stay healthy throughout this year, do not just treat the symptoms such as customer complaints with quick fixes like training sessions for front office staff. Instead, deeply examine if your leadership team is truly customerfocused!