Customer Service Leadership: Talk it—Then Walk it



Nicole Atkins, President and CEO

Customer Service Leadership: Talk it—Then Walk it

We talk freely and frequently about developing customer service behavior in our employees; but effective customer service leadership skills are an often overlooked component in establishing and nurturing a true culture of service. Leading, supervising and mentoring front-line staff is key to creating an environment that is compelling for our customers. Once we hire the right employees, we must also operationalize a specific leadership skillset that will translate our organization’s mission of service into direct front-line employee behavior. In other words, it is our demonstrated example that creates and nurtures the culture we seek.

It may sound trite or worn, but the sine qua non of employee development is modeling the behavior we wish them to exhibit. There are different ways of saying it: “Walk the Walk”; “Inspect what you expect” etc. The point is, in addition to teaching our employees with written and oral verbiage, we must embody our values with accordant action.

For example, our stated ethic at UMS is to treat people the way we want to be treated—all people, all the time. This is particularly important, of course, when our Contact Specialists call your patrons. The vast majority of patrons thank us or ask for more information in order to return materials to the library. A rare few, however, take exception to our call and let us hear it without equivocation! Maybe they’ve had a bad day and our call is the perfect opportunity to vent. Doesn’t matter. Our mantra is that we treat all patrons with equal respect and empathy without exception. On occasion, an irate patron will demand to speak to a supervisor. This provides a perfect opportunity to model. In those instances, our Contact Specialists get to observe reinforcing behavior, from their manager, that we remain true to our values even in a difficult moment. If the manager were to show impatience or indifference to that patron, our “golden rule” ethic would become just a sign on the wall rather than a code for real action. For us, these are golden moments to shine.

The principle of modeling becomes increasingly paramount as you move up the organizational chart. The power of the CEO or the owner to set the tone is unequaled. No matter how thoroughly we espouse a particular value and “train” our staff to follow it; no matter how much we promote it, one wink from the top dog can, and will, negate the effort. In other words, if it’s not really important to the boss then it’s not really important at all.

At UMS we stress our mission of service throughout the employee selection and orientation process. We teach that we can better serve our customers by serving each other . It’s a group thing. We strive to synergize from the top down.

To illustrate, we have a well-used program for employee recognition. When an employee spots an opportunity to help another employee to have a better day , the “helped” employee will issue a thank-you notice that gets posted in the lunch room. We refresh those postings each week, often adding several pages to the bulletin board.

Initially, clarity must be provided to new employees to help them distinguish between their “work function” and their essential “purpose” within the organization. The employees’ function is crisply defined by the terms contained in the job description. The employee’s purpose, however, relates to how his/her function helps activate the organization’s mission and culture. It answers the question of why the employee’s function matters beyond his/her specific tasks and accountabilities. It’s not as easily described but it is easily demonstrated. It is our job to help all employees relate their efforts to the bigger picture. This allows employees to read between the lines and to use their “peripheral” vision in discovering ways see to contribute to our mutual good of the organization. It allows the phenomenon of “the whole being greater than the sum of its parts” to develop and flourish. The work of the organization goes more smoothly and customers are better served.

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