How can a company excel in service, while also returning superior financial results? Customer-oriented companies can operate more effectively by focusing on the four critical success factors of service:

  1. Leadership that unequivocally believes it is in business to serve the customer
  2. A business-planning process centered around the customer
  3. An organizational ethic of service up and down the ranks
  4. An empowered, motivated, and competent frontline organization

Leadership is the catalyst without which the other factors are unlikely to find life. In our context, leadership is about ensuring the organization embraces a customer focus. To be effective, the leader needs to articulate a mission and be persuasive in his messaging. But to provoke the organization to work on the customer’s behalf on a sustainable basis, leaders need commensurate authority and power. A leader without power is essentially feckless to bring about the needed changes to the chagrin of the organization’s customer base.


Organizational inertia will kill innovation before it sees the light of day. For that reason, customer-focused leaders must believe unabashedly they are in business, first and foremost, to serve customers and this sentiment must be expressed through their actions. Excellence in service, therefore, requires an unwavering and relentless commitment on the part of the leadership team. Many organizations, however, manifest  a  panoply of anti-service biases that can stifle the most determined change agent. The leadership that seeks to fundamentally change the organization’s behavior may encounter so much resistance that, in the end, all efforts at substantive change are frustrated or torpedoed. This is no small reason why excellence in service remains a dead letter in most organizations.

Anti-service biases can run the gamut from overt obstructionism to fifth-column efforts designed to preserve the status quo. These deep-seated biases have great potential for engendering conflict. Not everyone in the organization will see eye-to-eye on the need to become customer focused. Many executives will find it personally objectionable or professionally untenable – particularly if their power base is threatened – to abide such a culture. The customer-focused organization must be driven by individuals from front to back who share an obligation to serve the customer. Those individuals who do not buy into that mission, after being given an opportunity to understand and embrace it, must be found other opportunities.


Politics is about the practice of influencing people. Politics involves the making of a common decision for a group of people. That is,  the making of a uniform decision which applies in the same way to all members of a group. It also involves the use of power to overcome resistance and to elicit the desired behavior of others.  If there were no differences of opinion there would be no conflicts. And, by extension, if there were no conflicts there would be no need to engage in political activity. Alas, that scenario is totally fanciful and the leader who remains conflict-averse is destined to allow the status-quo to prevail.

Most importantly, politics deals with the allocation of scarce resources. It is inevitable that the leadership team will have to go to the mat over how the organization spends the corporate budget. Competing factions in Marketing, Sales, Operations, and elsewhere in the organization will lobby hard for budget dollars that might otherwise go for funding service initiatives. Unfortunately, validating the cost-benefit ratio of every service initiative is a surefire way to nullify an organization’s customer focus. Service initiatives are generally characterized by having a stream of short-term, tangible costs and long-term, intangible benefits and will, therefore, have a great deal of difficulty overcoming a conventional cost-benefit screen if not tempered by intuition and common sense. Time spent on analysis to gain added precision, past the point where prudent judgment supports the need to act, delays the time to market to deploy a service initiative and thus enhances risk to the enterprise.

Shedding corporate activities that impede service, overcoming deep-seated cultural biases, and defending service initiatives during tough economic times are also battle grounds that will require an unremitting commitment to the service mission. The politically deft leader can bring about much change through education, discussion, and compromise. Framing the merits of service to the customer as an unassailable competitive weapon – and jawboning the message on a consistent basis – can go a long way to rally the organization around the mission. In the end, however, the leader’s greatest lever to effect change must lie in his authority and power to enforce change. There is nothing ill-boding about leaders with demonstrable power. Effective leaders use their power sparingly saving it for truly critical issues. Ensuring that the organization embraces an unflagging customer focus is an issue demanding all of the resources of authority and power available to the leader. “A person worthy of being a leader”, Senator Sam Ervin reminds us, “wants power not for himself, but in order to be of service.”




Management Advisor



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