Great Service Leaders Connect

“Doors!” the sound tech’s voice boomed.  And hundreds of employees poured into the giant hotel ballroom.  Room lights dimmed as the spotlights bathed the massive stage revealing a colorful, themed background.  Sounding like the voice of God, the sound tech again spoke:  “Ladies and gentlemen, the CEO of Acme Manufacturing, Jan Topdog.”

The CEO, carefully scripted through a teleprompter and supported by dazzling slides, gave the financial history and the projected goals.  The scene was a carbon copy of a gazillion other big deal meetings held in hundreds of ballrooms around the world.  But, this one was different.

Without warning the CEO moved beyond the teleprompter to the edge of the stage.  The speech changed from one of pragmatism to one of passion.  As the CEO began to talk about the power of the company’s vision and the value of every employee, big tears began to fall to the stage floor.  Overflowing emotion necessitated several long pauses to regain composure.  As the CEO completed the final sentence there was a long silence.  The audience sat overwhelmed by what they had just witnessed.  Then, they jumped to their feet for an awkwardly long standing ovation.  Even the “way too serious” contract sound techs were on their feet!

It was not the tears that moved this audience.  It was the CEO’s courage to be unabashedly authentic—to be publicly real.  Whether the emotion displayed is anger, compassion, pain, or joy, the authenticity of leaders changes the nature of the connection and invites a valued link with others.

Leaders too often associate their mantle of authority with a requirement for detachment.  “I don’t care if my employees like me,” the swashbuckling ruler announces, “I just want them to respect me.”  Such a view is often a preamble to emotional distance and calculated encounters.  The headlong pursuit of aloofness as the expression of authority invites employee evasiveness, not employee enthusiasm.  It triggers reserve, not respect.  An open door policy is not about a piece of furniture.  It is about an attitude of vulnerability.

Organizations populated by genuine leaders have more than their share of employee engagement and cutting edge breakthroughs.  Turnover is lower because employees value an environment free of passive aggressive game playing, cynicism and suspicion.   Customers are loyal longer because they trust what they experience.  Suppliers give such organizations better breaks because they view encounters as long term investments, not short term transactions.

Great Service Leaders Don’t Wear Rank

Combat troops are generally better behaved in the field (where battle is likely to occur) than in the relative safety of the rear area.  As an infantry unit commander in Viet Nam, Chip often wonder if it was related to the fact that military leaders remove markings of rank while in the field.  Enemy snipers always seek to get battlefield leaders in their crosshairs to strip their adversary of command.  This left the concept of “leadership” less related to obvious authority and more with subtle influence.  It also took the focus off of “whom” and placed it squarely on “what.”  Those officers who resorted to barking orders in a desperate attempt to signal rank often found their edicts sabotaged or circumvented by adroit foot soldiers skilled at deception.

We invited a fellow consultant to assist us with a group of senior executives of long term client.  She had heard us repeatedly rave about the CEO of this high-tech company.  Her flight was delayed and the meeting was underway when she arrived, preventing me from introducing her to the audience.  After listening to the group in a lengthy, spirited dialogue over a strategic challenge, she whispered to one of us, “Which one is the CEO?”  It was the highest compliment I could have bestowed on a leader fond of saying, “Never add any more leadership than is needed.”  Leaders without rank busy themselves with the business of mission and course, not might and conceit.

Great Service Leaders Care about Spirit

“This is the best work I have ever done in my life,” said a colleague who had just completed a very difficult consulting project.  What we witnessed was not the pride in his voice, but the lump in his throat and the emotion in his eyes.  Chores extract toil but causes unearth spirit.  Real leaders care less about toil and more about spirit.  They see spirit as a light that can easily go dim and view their role as helping associates keep the rheostat turned up.  They do this by constantly reminding them of the cause and by personally demonstrating passion about that cause.

Just like great service to customers, great leadership comes through creating a remarkable experience for associates.  Real leaders know that if they constantly give employees their very best enthusiasm, zeal will be the frequent response.

Great Service Leaders Invite Passion

“You are Interstate Hotels and Resorts,” said Vice President Jill Kallmeyer at her all-managers conference.  “So take personally every encounter with every guest and every associate.”  The words come from a woman renowned for her passion for the employees and customers and her “I’m so excited” spirit.  Real leaders look for ways to add value “to every encounter.”  Instead of shouting an order, they inspire with a story.  Instead of learning about customer experiences from a sterile survey, they find out face to face and ear to ear.  Instead of being quick to blame, they assume the best and avoid assumptions.  They are myth-averse, preferring to unearth the facts not rely on insinuations.  And, their “up close and personal” approach attracts passion for those around them.

“There is more to ‘turning lemons into lemonade’ than just a positive effort,” says Dallas-based motivational speaker Ed Foreman.  “Lemons take very little energy, but lemonade is a creation you have to work at.”  When Foreman was scheduled to do an all-day workshop at an invitation-only event in Scotland, he arrived only to learn the sponsor had been unable to enlist a single participant.  “Don’t worry,” the sponsor told Foreman.  “We’ll pay your daily fee and expenses; you can take the day off.”  “Not a chance,” responded Foreman.  “We’re going to call on your customers together and get as many as we can to enlist in your next training event.”   The sponsor learned a great lesson as Foreman’s passion turned customer resistance into customers registered.

Margery Williams’ Velveteen Rabbit is a children’s book many parents have shared as a bedtime fairy-tale.  The dialogue between the wise skin horse and naive rabbit contains great lessons for leaders.  “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse to the rabbit.  “It’s a thing that happens to you….It doesn’t happen all at once, you become. It takes a long time.  That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.”  Realness comes through promoting others, not on preening self.


About Chip&John

Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of several best-selling books. Their newest book is "Wired and Dangerous: How Your Customers Have Changed and What to do About it."
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