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Customer Service and the Role of Leadership

August 19, 2013

Streesed Employee 2 You go to the grocery store, hardware store or a restaurant. You expect the staff to know what they’re doing, to be efficient, pleasant and to answer your (often) unreasonable or inarticulate requests. All that for minimum wage, in typically crappy working conditions, with an overseeing management that thrives on stepping on people.

But you’re the customer, with the ingrained assumption that the customer is always right and is therefore allowed to kick service providers in the teeth if you so deem it.

And then people wonder why the service industry experiences high turnover, and why bad service seems to be self-replicating.

Employee turnover is taken as granted, the cost of doing business. Recruit, interview, validate potential employees, train and then watch the talented ones depart.

Who wrote this bizarre narrative?

Where’s the leadership?

Not long ago I had a side conversation with one of the older fellows I work with in hardware. I’m a part-timer, with my other life being a researcher and writer. But when it comes to writing about leadership and topics such as customer service (one of my keen interests) there’s no better way than having your feet put to the fire. I began my working career in consumer lending in 1978 so what better way to grill your feet after three decades in the public service.

You can blog and blab all you want about how to serve people, but if you haven’t had an uppity customer get in your face, then you just haven’t experienced the joys of remaining stoic and pleasant.

On that day my co-worker reminisced about the good old days when customers were polite and didn’t walk into an establishment with an attitude looking for a fight. Now don’t get me wrong, most people are relatively polite and fairly patient. What they lose sight of is that employees working in customer service–whether it’s in retail, hospitality or personal services–are having to deal with the corporate “employees-are-an-operating-cost” attitude. Everything goes to the bottom line. Operational staffing is oriented towards having as few employees on the floor as possible.

Boxers I can relate to customers who walk into a store and want to be quickly served. I’m like that, a cranky-58-year-old who views time as money. Except that I’ve always tried to put things in perspective. The only time I’ll get pissed off is when the person serving me (restaurant, retail store, etc.) is rude or if the manager-on-duty is indifferent to solving the problem. Then the six-guns come out. My typical approach is to chat up the employee and to work with them, not against them, in trying to solve my issue.

But on that day at work, the two of us tried to figure out why so many people have become rude and disrespectful in the customer service arena. Sure, we’re all busier, multi-tasking to the extreme, stepping on others who are too slow or who get in our way when it comes to our self-perceived “it’s my turn!”

I’ve learned to focus on the immediate customer, helping them with their needs, but simultaneously watching the growing queue of people who want my attention. Call me Mr. Multitasker, and my co-workers as well. We see you twitch, hear you mutter about crappy customer service, and “feel your pain” (in the illustrious words of President Bill Clinton).

My advice to service providers is to stay true to your values and treat people as how YOU want to be treated. In the immortal words of Johnny Paycheck, who popularized the 1977 song by David Allan Coe “Take This Job and Shove It,” sometimes we have to make pretty simple choices. If you work for a company that doesn’t back their employees when they’ve done all they can to solve a customer’s issue and yet the customer has become abusive, then it’s time to exit. These companies will eventually fail due to a lack of focus on TRUE customer service.

Always maintain your self-respect and dignity.

This is the leadership challenge to those who own businesses that serve customers directly, especially the public, and those who are in managerial roles:

You need to lead the way by modeling the behaviors you wish to see your employees and co-workers exhibit every day. And you also need to have your employees’ backs when they encounter an unruly, abusive customer. Yes, if you need to you can fire a customer, asking them to leave your establishment and not to come back unless their behavior improves.

When should you fire a customer? Read this post from Inc. 5 Customers You Should Fire. What can you add to the list?

Customer service is a tough business, not for the faint of heart. However, it can be exciting and a lot of fun once the leadership determines the values and principles that will guide it through both the good times and the bad times. And of paramount importance is the need for consistency by leadership to always maintain those values and principles. They’re your guiding compass to organizational success.

If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.

Booker T. Washington

Intergen ebook cover with TextClick here to download my new complimentary e-book Leadership and the Inter-Generational Divide, 2nd Edition.

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