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Monday, June 20, 2011

Customer-centric leadership? I'll take Sir Richard, thanks.

We’re in an interesting time, where the ubiquity of business has created an environment where some CEO’s have become celebrities like their entertainment and athletics counterparts.

There has been much written about whether having a celebrity CEO is good or bad for a business. But it is good for service businesses, in that celebrity CEO’s keep companies honest by keeping them in touch with customers at the highest levels.

Lack of interaction between management and customers is a problem that has long plagued all kinds of companies. How many service businesses do you support through a regular billing cycle, for which if the CEO rang your doorbell on Saturday morning, you would recognize them?

The flipside also applies. I know several senior leaders who couldn’t pick one of their customers out of a lineup. Not that they don’t know any individual customers, more that they are too far removed to be empathetic to their customers’ lives and experiences.

But take a handful of celebrity CEO’s. Richard Branson of Virgin, Mark Cuban of HDNet, Gary Kelly of Southwest, Tony Hsieh of Zappos. They’re highly recognizable to their customers, but more importantly, they are often caught moving among them in the service environment. When a customer recognizes one of these business leaders in the service environment, there’s a good chance they’ll take a second to give feedback – good or bad – about their encounter. There’s also a good chance that these CEO’s spend a minute or two asking customers about how their experiences are going.

Feedback – solicited and unsolicited – begets questions that CEO’s ask their teams. Why do we have this policy? Couldn’t we change this process to make things easier? Why can’t we deliver this part of the experience better?

That kind of connectivity is contagious. Leaders that report to a CEO that spends a good portion of their time interacting with customers, aren’t going to spend less, and so on and so on.

Many senior leaders never bring these questions up because they don’t have the context to do so. Their only connection to customers is through the customer satisfaction reporting and 4 layers of staffers at corporate headquarters. The only hard questions they have to answer come from Wall Street. If that’s the only constituent input to base future business direction, it’s a bad one. Celebrity CEO’s may have their problems – it seems that more of them are prone to incarceration, though that may be a visibility thing too – but for customer service driven by the interaction of business leaders and customers, they have the built-in advantage of customer connection.

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