Every once in a blue moon, I read a book that’s so good I want to shout from the rooftops. Serve to Lead by James Strock is such a book. Serve to Lead is a revolutionary approach for twenty-first century leadership. Every page offers timeless principles that will inspire you to achieve greatness and lead a purposeful life.
Jim is a bestselling author and speaker on leadership. His firm, the Serve to Lead Group, serves clients worldwide, including companies, professional services firms, not-for-profit organizations, government agencies, and the military. He has appeared in many media outlets, including The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Fox News, and CNN. This post, “Serve Your Customers,” is an excerpt from Serve to Lead, used with Jim’s permission. As you read it, remember, it’s not only what you bring to the table, but also how you serve it.
It is important to mention that I do not accept, nor did I receive, any benefit for my endorsement. My sole purpose for publishing this piece is to share a valuable resource with you.
–– Frank Sonnenberg
Serve Your Customers
By James Strock
If you’re working at Google or Apple or any of the thousands of technologically based startups striving mightily at this moment, you’re all about serving customers.
If you’re working in government, whether in the local post office or in the White House, you’re all about serving customers.
If you’re toiling at a not-for-profit organization, aiming toward the loftiest ideals, you’re also all about serving customers.
And yet…we all know the world doesn’t always work this way.
We all know because we’re all customers.
An enduring caricature of customer “service” was presented a generation ago by comedian Lily Tomlin. Her legendary character, Ernestine, was the ultimate officious and incompetent telephone operator. Invariably, with more than a touch of the passive-aggressive, she rejected even the most reasonable, mundane customer requests. Her signature line: “We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the phone company.”
In the intervening thirty years the world has changed beyond recognition. The Soviet Union collapsed into the ash heap of history. Even amid global economic uncertainty, there is greater wealth and opportunity in every corner of the globe than previously imaginable.
“The phone company” Ernestine represented no longer exists. Somehow, plenty of “Ernestines” remain.
Telephone calls are a lot cheaper than thirty years ago—but just try changing your plan. For that matter, simply try to understand the mass of ill-identified charges and fees and taxes that add up to a small fortune on your phone bill.
More often than not, the term “customer service” sounds like an ironic notion from The Onion.
Don’t think for a moment that you’re alone in encountering poor service. Type “bad customer service” into Google. You’ll stir up several million results in seconds.
That web search illustrates transformational change. In the Information Age, the customer is empowered as never before. Thirty years ago, a top executive might regard effective customer service as a second-tier priority. Today, it is an absolute necessity for success—even survival—of any competitive enterprise.
To be sure, organizations may get away, for a time, with disappointing customer service. In the short-run, they may wring profits from customer inertia. Some, such as regulated telecommunications companies or public utilities, may not face the full fury of competition which ruthlessly scours every nook and cranny of the world in pursuit of value. Such outliers may not see you as their direct customer. They may not feel there are immediate consequences for bad service.
And yet…No one can long evade accountability in today’s world. Tired of disappointing service from ATT? Suddenly, there’s Skype. Tired of paying for first-class mail and getting third-class treatment from Postal Service employees? Use email or United Parcel Service or FedEx.
Tired of waiting for education to improve in your community? Follow the example of New York City reformer Eva Moskowitz. Having been frustrated in the pace of change she was able to spur as a politician, she moved into direct, entrepreneurial action. Moskowitz founded the Success Academy Charter Schools. No matter what their ultimate effects, her enterprise is challenging the status quo in a notoriously difficult environment. At least as importantly, she’s setting an example for other reformers everywhere.
Unable to get malarial treatments from your public health agency? Contact the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
In the twenty-first century two new realities have merged. The customer has more power, more options to obtain service than ever before. Simultaneously, the capacity of individuals and organizations to serve has never been greater.
Yes, Ernestine is very much alive. But in the new relationship-based world of the twenty-first century, her days are numbered.
Do You Serve Your Customers?
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James Strock is a bestselling author and speaker on leadership. His firm, the Serve to Lead Group, serves clients worldwide, including companies, professional services firms, not-for-profit organizations, government agencies, and the military.
In addition to extensive business experience, Strock has served at high levels in government, including as the founding Secretary for Environmental Protection for the state of California, the chief law enforcement officer of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and general counsel of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
Strock served as a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve and is a member of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations.