Lost Leaders [Guest Post by Chip Bell]

“How can we maximize the profitability and efficiency of our call centers while minimizing the customer’s involvement?”  The question was shot point blank at me during a panel discussion at a conference of Fortune 100 CIO’s.  My keynote had preceded the panel.  The author of the question was a very senior leader of one of the 10 largest banks in the nation. Something about his question left me momentarily confused.

“Let me make sure I understand you,” I asked.  “You want to remove all of the service out of customer service?”  He responded with complete seriousness: “Actually, I’d like to take most of the customer out as well!”

The exchange seemed a fitting metaphor for lost leaders so preoccupied with the scoreboard that they lose sight of the real game.  I wanted to scream:  “But, what about your mission?  Your raison d’être?  As a senior leader, you need to be the one speaking of cathedral building not brick counting?”

Granted, financial management is important, just like the scoreboard is to a coach.  And, no one misses the seduction of the street clamoring for next week’s stock price.  But organizations with durability and long-term worth are those with obvious soul and substance, not just the arithmetic of the balance sheet.  The organization that glistens with purpose is the one that creates passionate employees and loyal customers; the organization without it creates indifferent employees and frustrated customers.

Lost leaders, in their quest for cost-effective at any cost, take all the high touch out of high tech.  The result is a corruption in the centuries-old service covenant.  The service covenant is the unspoken assumption that value will be exchanged for value and both sides of the covenant will play guardian over the experience.  Let me explain in more detail.

If a customer buys a product and it disappoints, the customer can return it for a replacement or refund.  But, since service is an experience that happens in the moment, no such replacement is possible.  If you are unhappy with your haircut, you might get a discount on your next one, but there is no way to get your hair back.  As customers, we derive some solace in knowing that, through winks and nods, we can quality-control the experience with the service provider as it is unfolding.  “Not so much on the sides!”

With the advent of cost-saving, efficiency-improving self-service and automation, the service provider guardian too often seems absent from the encounter.  And, as customers, while we enjoy the convenience of self-service, when it fails and there is no easy backdoor to a real person, it’s like a faulty vending machine in a remote location—who gonna call!  We find ourselves thinking, “What idiot invented this stupid process?”  The answer starts with executives like the one who asked the question in the opening paragraph?

Lost leaders view customers as after-thoughts, consumers, or, a necessary part of the profit-making quest.  They do not see them as Peter Drucker advised–the centerpiece of the organization’s purpose.  When asked if they listen to customers, they quote stats from the slides they watched in the boardroom!  When asked if a new process will enhance the customer’s experience, they report that the customer will eventually get used to it!  It is no wonder today’s customers are so picky, fickle and vocal.  And, it should be no surprise they tell thousands of “friends” on-line potentially sponsoring a mini-customer revolt!

Leaders with soul are those like Zappos’ Tony Hsieh or Starbucks’ Howard Schultz. They craft processes and practices from a partnership perspective. They demonstrate total honesty; impeccable reliability; authentic inclusion; empowered, knowledgeable front line employees; and, service recovery that focuses on healing a relationship, not just on fixing a problem.  And, they live their mission with every fiber of their being, never losing sight that, to paraphrase retired Herman Miller CEO Max DePree, “The first job of the leader is to define realty…and, the last is to say, “thank you.”

Chip R. Bell is a customer loyalty consultant and the author of several best-selling books.  His newest book (with John R. Patterson) is the best-selling Wired and Dangerous:  How Customers Have Changed and What to do about it from which this blog is adapted.  He can be reached at www.wiredanddangerous.com.