Nine Tips for Top-Notch Customer Service Leadership

Finding the Right Contact Center Leader Is Key in Order to Realize Success

By Brian Costanzo

Customer-centric companies make the customer-care function a strategic asset, both in terms of how they interact with customers and how they use data, insights, and feedback. Customer-centricity, however, does not just happen. In fact, for some firms customer focus is more of an aspirational slogan than a practical reality. Transforming routine contact center service into true customer advocacy takes strong executive leadership.

Leadership is easy to say but sometimes difficult to find. Luckily there are good indicators for picking contact center executives with the necessary leadership skills. Here are nine characteristics to keep in mind when making this critical selection:

1) Buys into and shares a company’s vision for customer-care delivery: Vision starts with the business owner or CEO, but the contact center leader must understand and embrace it. A great executive will walk away from opportunities where there is no “meeting of the minds” for how customers should be treated and how this treatment will evolve in the future.

2) Operates on both the strategic and tactical levels: Siobhan Tautkus, a principal at Manchester, New Hampshire-based Abbott Executive Search, confirms that the contact center executive needs to have both strategic and tactical skills. “What good is a vision if you can’t implement it?” she asks.

To Lisa Oswald, senior vice president of customer service at Travelzoo Inc., “A successful contact center executive is one who can master both strategy and execution, someone who can visualize the future and then build and operate an efficient system to deliver it.”

3) Solves problems and produces quantifiable results: Whether the issue is high turnover, inadequate staff development, lagging quality, or other potential contact center challenges, top executives will have a data-driven story to tell. “Anyone who puts their time and energy into their profession is absolutely going to measure the results of what they’ve done,” says Tautkus. “No employer can afford to hire someone who flies by the seat of their pants.”

4) Exudes confidence and will stand up for customer care: When it comes to selecting effective contact center leadership, high-energy candidates definitely have the edge. Part of this is a matter of interpersonal style. Leaders naturally attract attention for their bearing, presentation, and ability to be direct, straightforward, and articulate. They also must be willing to stand their ground.

According to Richard Shapiro, president of the Center for Client Retention, “Customer care is one of the most important departments in the company, and it is critical to have an advocate who will fight for staffing, training, and technology to support the department.”

Lisa Oswald at Travelzoo adds that great leaders are set apart by their ability to inspire, motivate, and communicate.

5) Takes business ownership of IT systems affecting customer care: The contact center executive need not be a techie per se, but reasonable technical acumen should be part of the package. The leader’s knowledge and skill, according to management consultant and author Scott Klososky, extends to creating tech strategy, picking vendors, overseeing technical projects, and utilizing data analytics. The contact center must proactively lead when moving to a next-generation technology platform. According to Klososky, “This is [the contact center’s] set of tools, and it must not be dictated or chosen by IT people or operations people.”

6) Has cross-functional and multi-industry experience: If delivery of customer care is a strategic differentiator for companies, customer-care experience should be a career differentiator, too. Executives should not be pigeonholed in a customer-care department. Rather, an executive’s experience in marketing, operations, or other business areas can contribute to a stronger customer-care program. The same goes for multi-industry experience.

According to Richard Shapiro, “I believe there is tremendous value in having a background in various industries. Service is service, and loyalty is loyalty; building stronger customer relationships should always be the goal in any industry.”

7) Matches channels to circumstances: In going multichannel, the right customer-care leader will be focused and selective. “A company’s multichannel strategy has everything to do with the product – what are you selling or servicing? – and the demographics of the audience,” says Lisa Oswald. “Consumer preferences – where and when your customers want to be serviced – should dictate channel strategy. For instance, the go-to-market service strategy for a new online game is likely to be very different from a luxury goods retailer.”

8) Never settles for good enough: Few companies have reached customer-care nirvana. There’s always room for quality improvement, and a great leader will never be satisfied with the status quo. As Siobhan Tautkus says, “The good person is constantly looking at the KPIs and saying, ‘We need to move the goalpost.’”

9) Makes demonstrable contributions to the bottom line: Customer care is not a profit center, but there are ways to show return on investment in customer-care programs. According to Shapiro, these include measuring whether loyalty or purchase intent have been impacted, reducing negative social media postings, and enhancing business reputation.

Consider these nine characteristics as you consider your next customer-care leader.

Brian Costanzo, CAE, is president and CEO of SOCAP International, the nation’s association of Fortune 1000 customer-care executives.

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