What Great Service Leaders Actually Do


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It all started with an exercise at an executive retreat. We had been queried by participants throughout the session to reveal what “walking the talk” looked like for a service leader.

“Sure, you’re supposed to be a role model. We know all about making service excellence a priority and how we need to communicate the service vision,” they chided. “But, that’s just consultant-talk. What does ‘being a service leader’ look like up close on a Monday morning when the sh_t is hitting the fan?”

Remembering the lessons from Consulting 101, we opted to avoid answering their question, but used a small group exercise instead. “Assume you implemented today a new unconditional service guarantee,” we instructed the group. “The service guarantee promised that if customers were not completely happy with the service they received, they would get a refund equal to ten times the price. What actions would you take as a leader to avoid quickly going bankrupt?”

The mood in the room shifted from doubting Thomas to take-charge warrior. Even the quieter members were filling up flipcharts with leader actions aimed at keeping the service spirit alive and employees focused on taking care of customers. When the exercise was completed the group of twelve had generated over a hundred specific “Monday morning” actions and in the process discovered their own answers to their “walking the talk” question.

We compared their list with what we have witnessed among leaders known for inspiring, instigating, and sustaining a culture famous for service. Some have names that identify their enterprise—like Bruce Nordstrom and Bill Marriott. Most are known only to their associates, stockholders, and customers. Their actions have similar themes.

They Connect

“He’s everywhere,” say people of Ed Fuller, President of Marriott International. The words are not just about a man who travels the globe practically every month. It is the way Ed takes time to greet the bellman from a previous trip, to ask the “Was it a boy or girl” question of the front desk clerk who was pregnant on his last visit to a property, or to tell a story about great service by a banquet supervisor in the presence of her general manager. Fuller is more than a people person, he’s a people lover. And, he connects with openness, enthusiasm, and a spirit of adventure.

Great service leaders avoid getting “stuck in meetings.” Try and schedule a sit down meeting with Larry Kurzweil, president of Universal Studios Hollywood and you are likely to get, “Sure we can meet. You don’t mind if we walk the park while we talk, do you?” You get Larry’s complete focus, only it is punctuated with stops to ask questions of associates or give directions to lost guests. It is like he is the energy source for the park and if he is not out there meeting, greeting, and energizing then the park will deflate and go flat. And, he has plenty of company—his leaders are out there as well.

They Trust

Trust is something which happens within people only when it is created between people. However, trust does not happen by accident; it is crafted “by hand.” It takes personalized action and attention to the impact that leader actions have on associates. Great service leaders are quick to credit others. They believe in associates often more deeply than the associates believe in themselves. They coach instead of censure when excellent effort produces disappointing results. They surprise associates by giving them assignments that spell t-r-u-s-t. When employees experience trust from within, they are quick to demonstrate trust to customers.

When I was in my first month of employment as a fresh-out-of-college banker, my boss sent me to an important conference my boss was originally scheduled to attend. I was sent with a special assignment—to get to know other bankers from the competitions to gain insight into their plans and approaches. Rather than debrief me privately upon my return, my boss asked me to share my learning’s with the entire division. While an “orientation program by fire,” the action shouted volumes about trust.

They Enrich

“Add value to every moment by taking it personal,” was the advice given to associates by Greg Haller, then President of the Midwest Region for Verizon Wireless at their rally near Detroit. The words come from a man renowned for his passion for the customer and his “I’m so excited” spirit. Great service leaders look for ways to add value. Instead of barking an order, they inspire by telling a story. Rather than waiting for information, they go and get it. Instead of learning about customer experiences from a survey, they find out face to face. They abhor excuses, blame, or any actions that acquiesce to the status quo rather than altering it. Helen Keller said it well: “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” So it is with great service leaders.

“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 there 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 enlisted in you next training event.” The sponsor learned a great lesson as Foreman’s passion turned customer resistance into customers registered.

They Inspire

Don Freeman, Chairman of the Freeman Companies, says of his commitment to customers: “Freeman’s past success is largely due to a legacy of excellent customer service, and I remain totally dedicated to that focus. I know we can do this. We can be a great general services contractor and still give customized special service to every customer.” Don, with CEO Joe Popolo, speak from the heart instead of a chart when they address managers about taking the courageous step of rapidly changing the culture to one focused on customer loyalty. Leading out loud means irrefutable passion behind vision-aligned actions.

One of the countries leading full service contractors for expositions and conventions, Freeman delivers great service to its key customers—show management. Eager for rapid growth Freeman realized it must create that same reputation with customers who exhibit at shows, not just those who manage the shows. In response to customer suggestions, Freeman opened a new Customer Support Center. “Unlike some call centers where the primary purpose is to take orders, the Center assists exhibitors with show service questions and quickly resolves their issues,” says Center manager Brenda McCord. As Joe Popolo, CEO of Freeman says “While we do so many things right as a company, and we have the most dedicated, talented employees, this is an area where we must improve to move our company to the next level.”

Great service leaders don’t stop for a moment to think about what “walking the talk” looks like for a service leader. When the stress is on and the stakes are high they set the standard for their organizations. As any parent knows who has hammered a finger with an observant child as witness, modeling is most memorable when under pressure. Great leaders connect, trust, enrich, and inspire. They patiently listen to employees, customers, vendors in a constant quest for service improvement. Bottom line, great service leaders are great because of one over-riding quality: they serve.

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group (chipbell.com) and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.


  1. Great examples, Chip. Especially liked the Ed Foreman quote “Not a chance”. Demonstrates how leaders at small- and mid-sized firms can implement the same tactics.


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