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What is Customer-Focused Leadership?

August 17, 2011    By Ray Miller

“Customer Focus is a Leadership issue! ”

Ray Miller is Managing Director of The Training Bank and author of That’s Customer Focus! and The Customer Focus Companion.

The Training Bank is a full service training and development firm which specializes in fully customizable Leadership, Customer Focus, Service Excellence, Management and Supervisory Development training.

Enhance your Customers’ Experience and sharpen your Customer Focus to differentiate your organization and build long-term loyalty and profitability.

If you need help, check out our book, That’s Customer Focus!: The Overworked and Under-appreciated Managers Guide to Creating a Customer-Focused Organization.

Everything you need know and do to create and implement your strategy is covered in this great book. 

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To become a customer-focused leader, it is helpful to look at the best practices of other organizations when it comes to management and leadership practices and tailor these to your specific situation.

Why is this important?

Truly customer-focused organizations are run and managed on a day-to-day basis by Customer-Focused Leaders. The buck stops with you.

Customer-contact and support employees are rarely the biggest obstacle to service improvement.

It's up to management to create an environment in which employees can deliver excellent service

The reality is that you can talk about how important service is from the highest levels of your company, you can begin to change processes and procedures company-wide which reinforce customer-focus, and your staff can work diligently at trying to provide service excellence. But, at the end of the day, the only way to ensure sustainable service excellence is for those in management positions throughout your company to do things which create an environment where service flourishes. You will make it happen.

Your Key Role as a Leader is to:

….in other words, to be a Customer-Focused Leader.

Organizations that deliver top quality service have a number of things in common. These best practices have been summarized into key customer-focused leadership principles.

These are:

  1. Commit to Service Excellence
  2. Lead with a Customer Focus
  3. Listen to the Voice of the Customer
  4. Enhance and Align the System
  5. Build and Strengthen Service Partnerships
  6. Define Service Boundaries and Provide Autonomy
  7. Be Pro-Active in Service Recovery
  8. Measure What’s Important
  9. Hold Everyone Accountable
  10. Recognize and Reward

Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail.

1.        Commit to Service Excellence

Most managers and staff typically say that service is important. The question is, do they act consistently in a way which demonstrates that service is important?  A true commitment to service is based on the belief that service excellence is a competitive advantage. The term commitment in this principle means action. It is what you do as leaders, not what you say that counts. The best evidence of your commitment is found in what customers and your internal service partners say about you and your team. It is also evident if your commitment extends to holding everyone accountable for excellence in the customer experience rather than accountability for following procedures. That is not to suggest that procedures and rules are not important but customer-focused leaders are continually looking for ways to modify how business is done in order to make it easier for customers to do business with your Organization.

It is a matter of choice. Customer-Focused leaders choose to commit because they know it is a winning business strategy.




2.        Lead with a Customer Focus

Like most organizations, you probably have a Responsive Up Mind-Set where upper management is responsible for setting and communicating the organization’s vision, direction and goals. In this structure the frontline and support staff are responsive to the needs of middle management who are responsive to the needs of upper management. To visualize this, think of your company structure as a pyramid with senior management at the top, customer contact staff at the base and your customers below the base of the pyramid as depicted in figure 1.

A Customer-Focused Leader’s goal is to combine this organizational structure with a Service Mind-Set (figure 2).

The Service Mind-Set inverts this structure so that upper management views itself as serving the needs of middle management who service the needs of the frontline and support staff who in turn service the needs of the customer. This is the mind-set that supports leadership with a customer focus. This means seeing yourself as a service organization for your employees.

Recognize that excellent service is impossible if you over-control. Remember that frustrated employees do not deliver good service.

View your staff as your partners. Do things which put them in a position to succeed.

As a boss, people will respond to you because they have to.

As a customer-focused leader, people respond to you because they want to.

3.        Listen to the Voice of the Customer

Listening to customers and continually realigning systems and actions to what customers want and need is critical. While periodic customer surveys are important, listening to the customer should be a routine part of day-to-day business practices especially at the point of contact with customers. Enable every customer-contact person to truly listen to what customers say and don’t say.  Recognize that customers’ perceptions are their reality. Create processes to catalogue your customers’ reactions and act on this intelligence by aligning your operational practices wherever possible to positively impact on your customers’ perceptions.

Customers also make dramatic  conclusions about product quality and service based on minor details, so pay attention to the little things.

4.       Enhance and Align the System

An organization’s long-term success depends upon fast, continuous enhancement to all processes, policies and systems which impact on the customer. Many processes are designed to meet regulatory, compliance and fiduciary standards. Other processes have evolved to expedite workflow. You need to be continually examining all processes, policies and systems which impact on the customer and looking for ways to make them less burdensome from the customer’s perspective. Management’s role in the development and implementation of improvement plans must be strong, and highly visible. Sustained quality improvement efforts require the highest level of commitment from managers and continual attention and action.

Employees at all levels of the organization must be actively involved in the implementation of improvement plans. Managers play a critical role in identifying and removing barriers to the delivery of service excellence. Minor improvements can be perceived as major improvements by the customer.

Encourage your staff to constantly look for better ways of doing business in a way that your customers value and enable your staff to make these changes or communicate the changes required to those who are empowered to do so.

5.      Build and Strengthen Service Partnerships

If you want to get it right for your customers, you need to get it right internally FIRST.

Mutual cooperation among employees from different functions and departments is essential if your goal is to deliver superior value your customers.  When it comes to customer service there is no place for an “It’s not my job” attitude. Customer service must be viewed as everyone’s job… everyone’s most important job.  The simple reality is… without the customer there is no job!

The only way to succeed is for everyone to believe that his or her job is not a series of tasks and duties, but rather an integral part of creating value for customers.  

Everyone should know the negative impact they have on customers when they fail to provide help or assist co-workers.

Building and maintaining highly effective internal partnerships takes constant attention and focus. It is your role to see that this happens.

6.       Define Service Boundaries and Provide Autonomy

Each employee needs to understand your organization’s service values and be able to connect these values to everyday actions. A leader must define service performance boundaries that will allow employees to handle the routine deviations from normal customer transactions or interactions.  These boundaries must be wide enough to allow employees to handle all routine transactions and interactions, as well as the predictable and routine exceptions they face, and narrow enough to protect the financial integrity of the business operation. Each employee must have clearly defined goals, boundaries, standards and guidelines which enable him or her to deliver quality service. It must be clear how achieving performance goals will contribute to service quality.

Setting effective service goals requires that every employee thoroughly understands the basic promise your company makes to your customers and the Moments of Truth for which he or she is responsible and can identify how to impress the customer. The customer-focused leader creates service boundaries and standards that allows people to succeed. Clearly define measurable and achievable goals and boundaries based on employee capabilities and guidelines to enable them to deliver quality service.

Every employee needs to understand why what he or she does is important in the context of service quality. Ensure that every employee has the requisite knowledge and skill relative to their specific job function combined with a clear understanding of their boundaries and standards. When employees demonstrate this understanding and these capabilities, give them the autonomy to take action; set them up for success, not failure.

Don’t micro-manage.  When people show they can do their job, then let them do the job. Too many rules make it difficult, if not impossible, for service providers to effectively perform their jobs. Rules and procedures designed to protect against a small percentage of individuals convey a message of mistrust to the majority of honest customers. Enable your employees to use their judgment.

7.      Be Pro-Active in Service Recovery

Recovery is a term which describes your actions in response to a customer’s complaint or problem. While most service providers have a goal of “zero defects,” the reality is that people make mistakes. It is important to remember that the vast majority of customers don’t complain about the quality of the service they receive, they just leave. Problems will happen and should be viewed as opportunities to impress the customer.

In the world of service recovery, the faster the problem is resolved the more likely the customer will be satisfied. Work with your staff to ensure that the solutions provided to customers are designed to at the very least satisfy, but whenever possible impress.

Since the most frequent complaints and problems are predictable, you can work with your staff to plan recovery strategies for handling these situations and empower your staff to take action.

Being pro-active also means seeking out disgruntled customers before they have a chance to complain, particularly when you know that as a result of a change in a process or procedure, complaints are likely to result. It’s about building solid relationships with each customer based on trust, honesty and a sincere desire to earn their loyalty.

8.        Measure What’s Important

Some say “You get what you measure.” ... The reality is... “You get what you pay attention to.”

A major responsibility of a leader is to create effective and accurate measures from the customer’s perspective.  Good measurement allows employees to understand how to be successful within the organization. You can do this by translating these measures into actions and service standards that will allow employees to understand what good service looks like and how to succeed.

Measurement is about paying attention to the service performance you want, and focusing on outcomes rather than activities. Set service performance goals and standards that are realistic while at the same time strive to go beyond the basics in an effort to exceed customers’ expectations.  Ensure that every employee understands and agrees to what is being measured, why it is important and how these measures reflect their performance boundaries. The scorecard you use to assess success should be developed from the customer’s point of view.

9.        Accountability for All

You have an obligation to your customers, to employees, and to the company to be unyielding in your demands and expectations for service excellence. Employees will pay more attention if they know they will be provided with solid, fair and constructive positive feedback on their performance. Employees give credibility to service quality if they are held accountable to the outcomes of their performance.

Measurement must be followed by action. Action means giving timely feedback on both good service performance and poor service performance, equally. Provide feedback as close to the service performance occurrence as possible. A lack of action communicates that service is not important, individual performance does not make a difference, there are no clear-cut performance expectations, and that the organization’s leadership is not credible.

10.    Recognize and Reward

Successful service leaders ensure attention is paid to those who serve customers well and to those who assist in that effort. They show their appreciation to those who make sure the organization’s customers are served properly. Consistent recognition of achievement is an integral part of building and maintaining a customer-focused culture. A positive and effective work environment is dependant upon  positive feedback, so “Catch people doing things right.”

Recognize the positive changes in service performance and provide rewards when you see a sustained improvement in service performance outcomes.  Ensure employees know what they need to do to earn a reward. Provide rewards that are valued from the employees’ perspective and ensure that you reward those who deserve it.

To conclude:

Built on a solid foundation of dynamic internal service your goal must be to master the effective use of all these key Customer-Focused Leadership fundamentals.

The financial gains associated with being a truly customer-focused organization are substantial and  should not be overlooked or taken for granted.  You have it within your power to make a difference and dare to be different. Become a Customer-Focused Leader.

If you or your employees would like to learn how to become a Customer-Focused Leader please ask us about our Customer-Focused Leadership Workshop.



Customer Focus is an aligned organization-wide approach to customer satisfaction and service, leading to customer loyalty and advocacy.

The result is sustainable profitability.

In a Customer Focused organization, Leadership, Processes and People are customer-aligned. This requires that:

While Customer Focus and service excellence is everyone’s responsibility, this is particularly true for anyone who manages and supervises others.

That’s why we believe that. ...