Leadership and Exceptional Service – One and the Same

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

I have always been passionate about exceptional customer service. I started my working life in retail and hospitality. I worked in a technology superstore when internet was dial-up and modems were optional. I manned the phones in call centres in the telecommunications, insurance and finance industries, and I worked as a sales rep.

While many aspects of these roles were dull and tedious (remember I’m insatiably curious and driven by learning new things – I would run out of things to learn, which is where the boredom came from), but when I was engaged with a customer – including the most grumpy and unreasonable customers – I would lose myself in a state of ‘flow‘ – where time would stand still and speed up all at once. And the absolute thrill of turning a dissatisfied customer into an outspoken advocate for the company was the one thing that would keep me going.

So what does this have to do with leadership?

Today we’re going to explore six ways that leadership is exceptional service.

Exceptional Service

Know your business – and your products – deeply

The worst thing you can ever do in a service role is make something up – the details, the price, the features and benefits, the after-sales service, the warranty period… But if you understand your products, and the way your company works, then providing exceptional service is a lot easier. You should never need to ‘fudge-it’.

The same is true for leadership. Speak from a position of knowledge and understanding, or say you don’t know but will find out. You lose your team’s trust if you wing-it.

Communicate clearly and consistently

Customers shouldn’t need to know your products and services as well as you do. So even though you are a well-spring of knowledge, you should not be blinding your customers with the size of your intellect. Your job is to meet them exactly where they are, and use language that means something to them. No jargon. No gobbledy-gook. No technical terms, unless they are necessary. You are responsible for helping them understand. If you ever find yourself saying ‘but they just don’t understand how complicated it is’ you’ve already lost the battle.

The same is true for communication with your team. Speak with the intention to build common ground and understanding. Not to make someone feel silly, or confused. And recognise that it’s your job to ensure understanding is reached – not theirs.

Treat everyone as ‘valuable’ unless they prove they aren’t

Some people are annoying. It’s as though they were put on this earth to push your buttons. They don’t listen, they talk over you, they shout down the phone, they patronise you… And, within reason, they still deserve your respect. You don’t know what’s going on for them right now. I worked in the insurance industry, where sometimes clients were calling because they’d just lost a loved one and they wanted to get details of life insurance policies. Who am I to judge how someone responds to that loss?

However some customers, no matter what you do, will create trouble, and cost the organisation far more than they generate in value –  now or ever. Deal with this quickly, or the costs will mount up.

The same is true for leadership. Exceptional service in a leadership context means recognising that while not all of the people you work with are people you’d invite round for a party on Saturday night, everyone has something to contribute, and deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. Unless they have proven that they are not able to provide value to the organisation through their behaviour or their performance – or both. Leadership means dealing with these situations quickly too – with dignity. Or else the knock-on impacts add up very quickly.

Invest time in understanding what makes people tick

Everyone’s inner world is different. Their life experiences, and hopes and aspirations, and their darkest fears. Exceptional service means understanding your customers enough to anticipate their needs, and match those with the services that you have available. When this is done well – magic happens. When it is done poorly, it feels superficial and ‘sales-y’. When it isn’t done at all, no-one cares enough to buy anything or participate in anything. All it takes is a friendly smile, or asking a few questions with a genuine desire to understand.

Exceptional Service

Great leaders care deeply about their team-members: their well-being; their inner world; their hopes and aspirations. What motivates them, and what drives them batty. You can only learn these things by spending time seeking to understand. It’s an investment that will pay dividends.

Know your limits

Everyone has limits – emotional limits, intellectual limits, and what I’ll refer to as ‘bureaucratic limits’. While these things change over time, there is always a limit at a point in time. Exceptional services means knowing you’ve hit the wall emotionally and won’t be able to serve the next client well until you’ve had a few minutes to decompress. Exceptional service means not overstepping your delegated authority. Exceptional service means recognising when you are out of your depth.

The same is true for leadership. Great leaders know exactly what they can do, what they can get away with, and what they cannot do. They know when they’ve reached the point they need to recharge – even if that’s just a brisk walk round the block. Great leaders know when to call on the experts to provide the specialist advice.

Under-promise and over-deliver

Yes it’s a cliche, but cliches become cliches because they’re useful and used. You can delight people when you manage their expectations, and then exceed them. Take two customers, give them exactly the same service within exactly two days for the same price, but tell one of them up front that it might take three days, and the other that it will only take one and see what happens…

Exceptional Service

The same is true of leadership. Don’t give your team false hope. Create sceptical optimism and then ensure they succeed. They’ll trust you, and enjoy the experience of constantly exceeding expectations. Everyone likes to feel like a winner!


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