In May 2011, Consumer Reports ranked Southwest Airlines as the “Top Airline in Customer Service.” Southwest is consistently recognized as a leader in this area, so when I started to conduct research for a recent presentation on Delivering Exceptional Client Service, I looked to the book “NUTS!: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe For Business And Personal Success.” I was taken aback when I read the title of the eleventh chapter, which is “Customers Come Second.”
Part of Southwest’s recipe for success is adopting many of the principles of “servant leadership,” which is a term coined by Robert K. Greenleaf. As defined by Wikipedia, it is a philosophy and practice of leadership supported by many leadership and management writers and consultants such as Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey, Max DePree and others. A servant leader looks to the needs of the members of his or her team and asks him or herself how he or she can help them to solve problems and promote personal development. A servant leader’s main focus is on people, because content and motivated people are better able to reach their personal goals and fulfill an organization’s vision and expectations.
Yes, you need satisfied clients to survive, but without a team of satisfied service delivery people, you can’t possibly expect to have satisfied clients. Satisfied employees tend to enjoy their jobs, provide better work product, are more productive, and are much more likely to deliver the quality of service that will compel clients to keep you as their professional service provider and refer you to others. Many firms are focused on client retention right now, so it may seem counter-intuitive to shift your focus from your clients to your employees, but if you do so, you will see that employees who feel heard, attended to, and highly valued lead to higher client satisfaction levels.
You can put your employees first by developing your “servant leadership” muscle. Larry C. Spears, who has served as President and CEO of the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership compiled a set of 10 characteristics that are central to the development of a servant leader. Take a look at the following set of characteristics and brainstorm ways to strengthen your leadership muscles in these areas:
- Listening – Do you have the ability to be quiet and tune in to the needs of others? Do you actively solicit input from your team members and listen closely to what they say (and to what they are not saying)?
- Empathy – Even if you are not a naturally sensitive and/or empathetic person, can you make an effort to try to understand things from the perspective of others and perhaps even ask them to help you understand what challenges and issues they are dealing with? Simply asking the question will make people feel valued.
- Healing – How can you help someone in your organization move forward and achieve healthy relationships and well-being? Perhaps you can offer a course in communication skills, stress management techniques, or simply offer an ear to listen to someone’s concerns and generate strategies together to problem solve and “get better.”
- Awareness – Find time to look up from the day-to-day and use your senses to figure what changes or improvements may need to be made. Take the time to be “in the moment” and grateful for what is in your life right now.
- Persuasion – Rely less on having people do things “because you said so,” and find ways to “enroll” them in your ideas because they see a benefit for themselves as well as the organization and others. Be creative about how to get them to want to do what you want them to do.
- Conceptualization – Make time to dream and vision and then share your vision and dream with others, while encouraging them to do the same.
- Foresight – Make the most of past experiences by learning from them and using team experiences to create a better future for everyone on your team. Also, tap into your intuition and strengthen the trust that you have in your decision making abilities.
- Stewardship – How can you give back to society or to your community? How can you make your team members feel like your firm is making a real difference in the world? (This is especially important to Generation Y team members!) How can you get involved in community events or demonstrate social responsibility and/or commitment to the environment?
- Commitment to the growth of people – Do you have any formal programs in place to contribute to the personal, professional, and spiritual growth of your people? If not, where can you start?
- Building community – How can you increase the feeling of community and family that is felt within your organization? What opportunities do you create to build relationships on your team? It could be as simple as walking around and checking in with people to see how they are doing, what’s happening in their life and what you might do to support them.
As you went through this list and asked yourself these questions, what areas did you see where you could improve? What one thing can you do this week - and then add one thing every week - to serve your team? How much time can you commit to invest in the development and well-being of your people? What things do you appreciate and value about your team members that you have not voiced?
As you consider all of this, please do not underestimate the power of acknowledgment and praise. You have the ability to make someone’s day, week, even their whole entire year! Also, keep in mind that this style of servant leadership develops the kind of trust and respect that breeds employee loyalty, which will help ensure the health of your firm. Studies show that, for the most part, employees don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses. Help ensure that you have a strong team providing quality and consistency for your clients by investing in continually finding ways to serve and support your own team.