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5 Ways Leaders Can Inspire a Culture of Service

Right out of college I was hired to work on the customer service team at a small, rapidly growing startup. In our industry, which happened to be web hosting and domain name registration, it was en vogue to slap 24x7x365 support on our website, which we offered. Another thing that I can remember was the words “Award-Winning Customer Service” appeared in big, bold letters on our site.

It’s entirely possible that an actual award had been received, warranting that claim. I don’t know for sure. I do know that customers sure loved to hold it over our heads when we didn’t deliver award-winning customer service. In fact, failing to deliver on our reputation often fueled their fire.


When I reflect on those occasions, there were most certainly areas we could have improved upon, and there were other times we may have achieved award-winning service entirely by accident. Rather than spending the next few paragraphs talking about everything we did wrong, however, I’m going to share what was right about our culture of customer service that made us deserving of such an award.

Here are the five reasons.

1. No one is too high or mighty for customer service.

This is probably typical of many startups, but our small company always maintained a culture where anyone in customer service could approach anyone else in the organization with a question. In fact, it was expected. Escalation channels were fuzzy at best with the sentiment that if you had a pressing customer issue, you could go directly to the programmer that introduced that bug or that executive that made that policy decision.

As companies grow and scale, some semblance of a flat organizational structure can still be preserved, so people at all levels feel the same pain the customer feels. This might involve things like walking around and talking to folks in the contact center, taking time to be trained on support and handling live support cases, listening to actual phone calls in meetings, and reading customer feedback. Heck, just keep your door open or don’t have a door at all. The goal is not to lose touch with customers and also make sure everyone in the organization knows you haven’t lost touch, so they follow your lead.

2. Never stop asking how an issue could have been prevented or improved.

My boss and I often called our one on one meetings “Dev Time.” He happened to be a programmer by trade and encouraged me to take an analytical approach to our support team. I was responsible for understanding our top contact drivers and coming to him with ideas for either preventing those contacts or improving them. Back in the day, this led to improved documentation, better product, fixed bugs, better self-service, and a slew of other things.

This is called innovation, and now we have things like speech analytics and machine learning to kick improvement into hyperdrive. Whether you have cool tools to work with or you’re living in spreadsheets, innovation can still happen when you continuously ask how the customer experience can be improved. This question should enter the mind of everyone serving customers on every interaction.

3. Empower your team.

Speaking of innovation, are you innovating the work your agents are doing? I’m embarrassed to say how many times agents had to come to me because they weren’t authorized to push a button or allowed to issue a certain credit to a customer. We were at our best when we were keenly aware of the questions our agents were escalating to us and empowering them to solve those issues on their own -- or at least increasing the number of people who could help with those problems.

In full transparency, there may have been times where I found comfort and security in pushing that button or authorizing that credit. I’m not sure if it was a lack of trust or just the security in having something easy to do. Who doesn’t like to feel important? Ultimately, I was better off properly training and empowering the brilliant people I hired to do their job better. If you’re looking for innovative ideas around empowering your team, check out #FreeToHelp movement.

4. Be easy to reach.

Back in the day, I didn’t even know what a service level was. When I did learn the term, I looked back and found that we typically answered about 90% of our calls in less than a minute. Were we a bit overstaffed? Probably. But this was mostly by design. We didn’t want wait time to be an aggravation for our customers because guess what? Aggravated customers tend to aggravate your frontline support team, putting them constantly on the defensive, and that’s before we’ve ever dealt with the real reason they called. This isn’t sustainable and has consequences like lower customer satisfaction and increased attrition.

For the record, back when I started in support we still sent and received a whole bunch of faxes. Things have changed in recent years, and there are now many new ways customers can reach support including chat, social media, and a variety of other messaging channels. Workforce planning is more complicated than ever, but just as important so that customers can reach you quickly and get their issue solved. Also, don’t forget that beefing up self-help and continuously improving your product can help prevent the need to contact support in the first place.

5. Be easy to work with.

In our line of work, customers might call for a variety of reasons, sometimes complex and out of the scope of what we were typically equipped to do. It would have been easy to say, “No,” but we wanted their business. Time and time again I’d go to an engineer and collaborate with them on a solution, and we figured out how to do what the customer needed. Sometimes this led to innovations that benefitted other customers.

Don’t get me wrong -- I’m all for simplicity, but not all customers are going to fit into the same box. Instead of saying, “No” or “It’s not in our policy,” find ways to say, “Yes” or “I’m sure we can figure something out.” As leaders we should continuously be looking for ways to test the limits of creativity -- and while these don’t come up all of the time -- these are occasions where you can really wow a customer.

Looking back, I sure loved being on and eventually leading a support team that espoused to these five things. While I still have no clue if our award-winning customer service team actually ever won any awards, I am sure that if you do these things consistently, you’ll be well on your way. I hear ICMI will be handing out some awards very soon.