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A Brief Lesson in Service Leadership

by Michael LeBoeuf

A man went fishing one day. He looked over the side of his boat and saw a snake with a frog in its mouth. Feeling sorry for the frog, he reached down, gently took the frog from the snake, and set the frog free. But then he felt sorry for the snake. He looked around the boat, but he had no food. All he had was a bottle of bourbon. So he opened the bottle and gave the snake a few shots. The snake went off happy, the frog was happy and the man was happy to have performed such good deeds. He thought everything was great until about ten minutes passed and he heard something knock against the side of his boat. With stunned disbelief, the fisherman looked down and saw the snake was back with two frogs!

That parable contains two important lessons: First, you get more of the behavior that you reward. You don't get what you hope for, ask for, wish for or beg for. You get what you reward. Come what may, all living beings are going to act in their own best self-interest and it's unrealistic to expect them to do otherwise.

And second, in trying to do the right thing, it's oh so easy to fall into the trap of inadvertently rewarding the wrong behavior and getting the wrong results.

By and large, people behave the way the reward system teaches them to behave. And it's true for the executive, the salesperson, the typist, the janitor or anyone else.

You would think that such a simple, obvious principle would be well adhered to in most organizations. Guess again! The single greatest obstacle to effective performance in most organizations is the giant mismatch between the behavior needed and the behavior rewarded. Organizations of all kinds fall into the trap of hoping for A, rewarding B and wondering why they get B.

Whenever you have difficulty understanding why people behave the way that they do, all you have to do is ask the magic question: WHAT'S BEING REWARDED?

Whether it's planned or not, every organization has some kind of reward system. And sooner or later, almost everyone figures it out and behaves the way the system teaches them to behave. Reward the right behavior and you get the right results. Fail to reward the right behavior and you're going to get the wrong results.

Whenever you see an organization consistently providing excellent service, you can be sure that there is a whole lot more than luck involved. Companies that provide great service have a well-planned reward system that meets the needs and wants of three distinct parties. First, the customer has to be rewarded with superior products and/or services because without customers there is no business. Second, employees need to be rewarded (for rewarding the customer) with adequate pay, opportunities for growth and an environment that makes them feel like winners. Finally, the company needs to be rewarded with a meaningful profit so it can continue to grow and reward its customers, owners and employees. The key is balance. If any one of these three groups isn't rewarded for an extended period of time, the quality of service and the future of the business are in jeopardy.

Picture the three components of the triple win (customers, employees and the company) as links in a chain with employees in the middle. We have all heard the old cliché about a chain being no stronger than it's weakest link and it applies to the problem of delivering quality service to the customer. Most owners and managers fully realize that their ultimate success or failure will be determined by the customer and understand the importance of rewarding him. And they also realize that unless a reasonable profit is made, there is no point in being in business.

But the ignored link in the chain is the employee reward system. Most businesses reward employees on some basis other than taking care of the customer. And that's one key reason why customers get poor service. The typical business hires employees and managers, expects them to serve the customer and then rewards them for something else. And something else is usually what they get. For example, here is a little quiz for you. Answer yes or no to the following ten questions and count the number of yes answers:

Does your company talk about the importance of customer service and then:

  • Pay the frontline people who deal with customers a low, flat, hourly wage?
  • Offer frontline people little, or no training in the fundamentals of providing quality service or managing the moments of truth?
  • Offer frontline employees no extra incentives for taking special care of the customer?
  • Reprimand or punish employees when service is poor but take it for granted when service is great?
  • Place a much greater emphasis on winning new customers than helping and serving the ones it already has?
  • Offer no rewards or recognition to non-customer contact employees for their efforts in serving the customer?
  • Hold "Be nice to the customer" rallies or campaigns that last for a specified period and are soon forgotten?
  • Have top managers who rarely, if ever, devote their time and energy to listening to customers and helping them solve their problems?
  • Make no effort measure the level of service quality as perceived by the customer?
  • Make no attempt to hold managers at all levels accountable or reward them on the basis of the quality of service provided?

Unless you work for one of the few companies that provide outstanding service, you probably answered yes to most of those questions. Most businesses put people in frontline positions, pay them a low, flat wage, give them little or no training and expect them to give excellent service. Then, when the customer complaints start rolling in and revenues decline, these same owners and managers wring their hands in frustration and tell themselves, "You just can't find good help any more." It's another example of the folly of hoping for A and rewarding B.

As a manager, there are three basic ways to teach employees how to treat customers:

  • Tell them what you want.
  • Show them what you want.
  • Measure and reward what you want.

Where service is excellent, the people in charge do a whole lot more than tell employees what they want. They act as role models and show a genuine concern for customers by taking the time to listen to and help them. And they back up their commitment to customer service by looking for, measuring, recognizing and rewarding excellent service at all levels and in all jobs. On the other hand, where service is poor, management talks about how important customers are but is just too busy to deal directly with them. And employees are rewarded for showing-up, looking busy, company politics or something other than taking care of the customer.

Through it's own behavior and the reward system, management teaches employees just how important customers are. And that message speaks louder than all the verbal messages in the world. Employees may listen to what you say, but they will believe what you do. And they will do what you measure and reward.

If you're trying to improve service quality in your organization, here are two good principles to keep in mind:

1. Rewarding the customer is everybody's job. Rewarding those who reward the customer is management's job.

2. How customers get treated is a direct reflection of how management is treating employees.


Michael LeBoeuf, Ph.D. is the author of 8 books including "How to Win Customers and Keep Them for Life." He speaks to business and professional audiences worldwide. You can find out more on his web site.

You may contact Michael LeBoeuf about speaking, consulting, other publications and many other things by using the form at the end of this link. You must request permission from Michael LeBoeuf to re-print or repost this article.


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