How can my team serve customers better?

Four practical ways to build a customers-first culture.

Well, I hit a major career milestone last week.

I got to interview my first gang member! 

Yes, believe it or not, Bernie Marcus joined me as a guest on How Leaders Lead this month. He is the 93-year-old iconic co-founder of The Home Depot. And before he launched one of the world’s most successful retail brands, he was just a kid on the southside of Newark learning how to survive.

As you might guess, his interview is full of unforgettable stories. (Give it a listen here.)

But more importantly, he shares a ton of wisdom about how to do what’s great for your customers. He said one thing in particular that I keep thinking about.

Bernie believes we don’t own customers. We rent them. And it’s a short lease.

I love this idea, because it so neatly expresses a key leadership insight: 

You can’t take your customers for granted. 

And given all the economic uncertainty right now, it’s truer than ever. It’s much more cost effective to take care of your current customers – and keep them – than it is to acquire new ones.

But how can you get your entire team on board? What can you do, as a leader, to create a culture where customer satisfaction is a priority? 

I’d like to dig into some key insights I’ve learned over the years, both from my own experience and from all the great leaders like Bernie I get to chat with. 

Even if you don’t lead in a business setting, just consider who your “customer” equivalent is. You can still use this advice to connect with whoever is at the heart of your organization, whether that’s fans, volunteers, or supporters. 

If you want to be a leader that creates a customer service culture, then keep reading. I’ve got four ways you can do just that, starting today!


1. Listen to customers.

As a leader, you’ve got to do the work to understand customers’ problems. If you’re not tuned into what customers are saying and feeling, how can you expect your team to be? 

How well do you understand your customers? What makes them tick? What problems do they need help with? Are they an abstract group to you, or do you see them as real people who happen to do business with you?

Great customer service always starts with empathy. That’s what you need to answer those questions well. And that kind of deep understanding only comes when we truly listen. 

So take time to listen to your customers! Schedule regular time to review survey data, product reviews, and feedback forms. As you do, keep a notebook handy to jot down all the ideas sparked by that feedback. (You’ll be amazed at how much insight you get!)

Another great way to listen to customers is to keep an open line of dialogue between you and the team members who serve customers. Believe me, they have their pulse on what customers need and are struggling with. Intentionally strengthen your relationship with that team so you can learn what they already know.

Finally, don’t be afraid to set an example.

At The Home Depot, Bernie Marcus loved to talk to customers directly. He personally answered the complaint hotline. He donned his orange apron and walked the floor. He listened to customers and tried to solve their problems – and in doing so, got a lot of insight into what their company could do better as a whole to serve customers.

2. Use your “bully pulpit.”

Your status as a leader gives you the outstanding opportunity to speak up and elevate whatever you think is important. 

If you talk about it, it matters.

That’s the “bully pulpit” term that Theodore Roosevelt coined, and it’s a key tool in any leader’s belt.

So talk about how important your customers are! 

That’s one of the main ways I used my “bully pulpit” as a leader. I reminded my team that none of us would have a job if it weren’t for customers. They’re the reason we exist. Because of that, we've got to make their satisfaction a top priority for our company. 

Too often, you see leaders demean their customer base. They’ll casually mention how little they understand, how they don’t really know what they want, and that their feedback makes no sense. 

That mentality will permeate through your culture. It’s a surefire way to give everyone on your team permission NOT to make customers a priority.

But when you advocate for customers and stress their importance, you help everyone in your organization adopt the same mindset.

You can also remind the teams that don’t serve customers directly how vital their work is to customers. For example, when your software team takes on that customers-first mindset, they’ll see how the time-saving feature they built or the bug they fixed is their way of serving customers well.


3. Empower employees to take care of customers 

It’s clear that great leaders have to talk to employees about the importance of customer service. 

But talk ain’t enough! You’ve got to back it up. 

Empower your team to actually serve customers. Give them the tools and the permission they need to take action.

I love how Kendra Scott approaches customer service in her popular jewelry stores. 

She says, “It’s important to think about how you can really empower your people to give the best service they possibly can every day.”

For her, it’s simple. They use “The Sister Rule.”

Instead of a massive customer service training packet for associates, “The Sister Rule” is a simple customer service policy where associates strive to treat every customer like they were their sister or brother.

“What would you do for your sister, if she had a broken earring? You’d fix it,” Kendra explains during her episode of How Leaders Lead. Her associates don’t have to ask for a manager’s approval. They just make the best decision they can, right then and there, using that simple philosophy. 

We had a similar approach at Yum! Brands with what we called the “ten-dollar rule.” We told our associates, if you can make a customer issue right for ten dollars or less, do it. You don’t have to ask for approval. You’re empowered to take action and serve the customer. 

That kind of trust and empowerment is powerful, and it helps your team members feel more invested in the overall mission. Plus, your customers will be more satisfied! 

How could you simplify your policies and empower your customer-facing team members to easily solve problems? 


4. Recognize great stories of customer service

By now you probably know: 

I believe deeply in recognition. It’s what people want most from their leaders. Plus, it’s a powerful way to highlight the kind of actions you want to see more of from your people.

If you want your team to focus on customers, start recognizing great customer service on your team.

Sometimes, at Yum! Brands, we would get stories of team members who went completely above and beyond to take care of a customer. We called these “Customer Mania” stories, and we made a point of celebrating them! 

We told those stories far and wide in the organization to recognize that team member. And it said to everyone else that taking care of customers is something that’s really important. 

Find a way for those stories of great customer service to hit your desk. Then, give the team member who made it happen a specific, public shout-out (and maybe a nominal monetary gift as well).

When you recognize these great moments, other people are going to see how important customer satisfaction is. It won’t be long before you see others up their customer service game.

I’ll wrap up with a great kick-in-the-pants quote from my conversation with Bernie Marcus. It reminds you that getting doing right by customers is part of a larger successful business strategy:

“People spend millions of dollars [on advertising]. In many cases they’d be better off just taking care of the damn customer. They spend a lot of money because they're trying to convince the customer that they're better than they really are. Why aren't you just good? Start that way. And you'll find that your business gets bigger.”

As a leader, you get to set the tone for how your team serves customers. Use empathy and recognition. Get creative about how you empower employees and elevate customer stories. 

Before long, you’ll see people making decisions with the customer in mind – because you’ve made sure the customer is always on their mind!