I just finished a book on customer service written by a long-time coach, teacher and mentor of mine dating back to my little league glory days. The book is titled Customer Service for Schools: Lessons from Corporate America written by Dr. Gary Excell McDaniel. As a dedicated educator spanning the last five decades, he has championed the importance of customer service in the education arena. Through his leadership and understanding of the educator’s role in developing the future citizens of our nation, he created a culture of customer service and continuous improvement that permeated throughout his entire team. These two concepts were key to the Total Quality Management (TQM) movement that started in the business industry during the late 1980’s. As a result of instituting these customer service and quality improvement-based processes, the magnet middle-school he led became one of the top-rated in the nation over the course of a decade. This book’s subject matter reminded me of key leadership areas I had learned about through a similar TQM movement in my military career during the same time frame. Back in the day, most would argue the word customer only had meaning in describing a business relationship between someone that sells goods and services to another individual. The most common definition of a customer is “a person who purchases goods or services from another”. I contend that this meaning is not broad enough to fit the countless situations where one person’s performance serves or supports another’s needs and requirements. Furthermore, I believe that everyone has a customer and most have multiple people counting on them to fulfill critical activities. Here are a few examples you may not have considered: parent-child, policeman-citizen, teacher-student, soldier-nation, supervisor-subordinate.
After being introduced to this broader spectrum of service to others as a young officer in the Air Force, I was trained to look at each situation as a unique opportunity to best serve someone down, up or sideways in the organization who depended on my performance to complete their tasks and do their job better. Many times, there were second and third level customers that became apparent only by talking to the first level customer I directly served. In addition, the customer relationship between individuals can be bi-directional. For example, supervisors and subordinates have customer service responsibilities to each other. The subordinate has the responsibility to fulfill the performance obligations required by his or her supervisor while the same supervisor has a responsibility to provide the subordinate with the resources and training necessary to accomplish their tasks. If the leader of the team has instituted a culture of customer service and continuous improvement, there will be a synergistic increase in overall performance. Paying attention to this network of customers is at the heart of good leadership, and the key ingredient to success is daily excellence. The "customer first" concept thrives when each person on the team makes a concerted effort to improve the product, service or performance at their level before sending it to the next. Customer service starts with the leader through the development of a culture of excellence and attention to detail. This culture has its foundation in the “Golden Rule” which is the principle of treating others as you want to be treated. This principle is followed up by a dedication to perform and deliver the best possible product or service to your customer. As a leader of your team, it is up to you to identify all of your customer relationships (both internal and external to the organization), determine what is required to deliver the best support to each, evaluate the customer’s satisfaction and continuously make improvements to the process.
If you don’t have a process like this, it’s time to start one. If you do, it’s probably time to have a staff meeting to review the entire customer service enterprise. Periodic meetings with your staff and customers will ensure your organization stays current with the changing requirements of the relationship. Who is your customer?