It Starts at the Top: Leadership Sets the Tone for Service Aptitude
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It Starts at the Top: Leadership Sets the Tone for Service Aptitude

It Starts at the Top: Leadership Sets the Tone for Service Aptitude

Any big initiative, project, or revolution must have the support of the senior leadership team; otherwise it will be considered "flavor of the month" or "management by bestseller."

Customer service must be as important as finance, sales, operations, and technology. It must be discussed at board meetings and strategic planning sessions with leaders and everyone else in the company, including front-line employees. To create long-lasting change, the senior leadership team must provide the necessary resources. That doesn't mean just increasing the budget for customer service. It is having someone in charge of the project--that is, a chief experience officer (CXO)--who is dedicated and loses sleep over the customer experience program and the results. People must be able to tell that the leadership of the company is truly committed and passionate about the customer experience. I like to say that if my employees can finish my sentences when I address them, then I am doing a good job with my vision and message.

Service aptitude starts at the top

Typically, when I am done speaking at a conference, I get one of two types of questions from attendees. First, "Can we really get our front-line employees to buy into this and treat customers better?" I respond, "Absolutely. If you follow the plan, you will create a world-class customer experience organization. It takes time, but be relentless and follow the plan."

The other question is, "How can I get my boss/president/CEO to buy into this?" And I respond, "Have him or her come to my next presentation, or get them my book." But what I am really thinking is, "You are sunk." If the top people can't passionately believe in the customer experience, the company will never embody it.

What do Howard Schultz (Starbucks), Walt Disney (Walt Disney World), Tony Hsieh (Zappos), Richard Branson (Virgin Airlines), Steve Jobs (Apple), Horst Schulze (The Ritz-Carlton), Truett Cathy (Chick-fil-A), Herb Kelleher (Southwest Airlines), John Nordstrom (Nordstrom), and Jeff Bezos (Amazon), have in common? Each of these leaders obsessed over their company's customer experience, down to the smallest detail. They passionately articulated their vision for world-class experience every time they spoke, to anyone and everyone who would listen. And their companies are all known for world-class customer service. Service aptitude starts at the very top.

Customer service hall of shame

For every poor customer service company, you can typically track the reason it is so bad back to the lack of its leader's service aptitude. The CEO of Spirit Airlines is a perfect example. Spirit Airlines is the most-complained-about airline in the U.S. To which recently departed Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza said, "That's irrelevant!" Being the worst at customer service in the airline industry isn't easy. Very few people like airline companies (unless you are a Southwest or Virgin Airlines passenger). You have to be pretty bad to be the worst.

Spirit reached a new low in 2012 when a 76-year-old Vietnam veteran and former marine tried to get his $197 back for a flight he purchased before he found out he had terminal esophageal cancer. After being told by his doctor not to fly from Florida to Atlantic City, airline officials told him to forget it, and Baldanza reaffirmed the company's hard line in a Fox News interview.

"A lot of our customers buy that insurance, and what Mr. Meekins asked us to do was essentially give him the benefit of the insurance when he didn't purchase the insurance," Baldanza said. "Had we done that, I think it really would've been cheating all the people who actually bought the insurance... and I think that's fundamentally unfair." We are talking about $197! Social media exploded over this controversial topic. Within days, there was a "Boycott Spirit Airlines" page that earned more than 36,000 likes. Spirit Airlines also charges its customers extra for each additional service or amenity, including up to a $100 fee for carry-on bags stored in overhead bins.

So, is your brand's customer experience "flavor of the month" or are you continually reiterating how it is your company's primary competitive advantage every time you speak?

John R. DiJulius III is the author of The Customer Service Revolution and president of The DiJulius Group, a customer service consulting firm whose clients include Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, The Ritz-Carlton, Nestle, PwC, Lexus, and many more. Email him at

Published: August 18th, 2016

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