Striking the Right Balance as a Customer Service Leader

As a customer service leader, there’s a certain balance I’ve struggled to find. Specifically, I’ve found myself feeling like I was failing my team on those busy days if I didn’t roll up my sleeves and help them get those calls answered or bust through that email queue.

Then there are those times when the pendulum swings in the other direction and I instead spend my time reviewing analytics, planning for the future, and working with others in the organization on initiatives that improve our overall customer experience.

Spending too much time interacting with customers can leave me feeling like our team is treading water and not making progress on key initiatives. But spending too much time staring at spreadsheets, planning, and meeting with colleagues leaves me feeling detached from my team and from our customers.

Where’s the balance? What’s my priority as a leader? Let’s explore this further, shall we?

Custer vs Grant

I’ve been just a wee bit burned out on business books lately — and when that happens, my go-to genre is often historical biographies. As I scrolled through a list of audiobooks, I stumbled upon Custer’s Trials, a book about the life of General George Armstrong Custer.

The only thing I knew about Custer was his infamous failure, referred to as Custer’s Last Stand, at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. With that in mind, I was intrigued to learn more about the man.

The book actually spends a significant amount of time earlier in Custer’s life and military career, detailing his successes as a leader during the American Civil War in the 1860s. While Custer didn’t smoke, drink alcohol, or use foul language, he was known to have a bit of a gambling problem. While that’s certainly a problem, it was also his willingness to lay it all on the line that made him a successful and popular leader. He was fearless on the battlefield, leading his men with reckless abandon and cheating death time and time again.

Enter General, and 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant who was portrayed as very much the opposite of Custer. Grant, often credited as the general who guided the Union Army to victory, is described as the first modern military leader. He was strategic and removed from the fighting.

Striking the right balance

I didn’t read (listen to) this book looking for any profound insight, but I found the contrasting leadership styles of Custer and Grant to be fascinating. Yes, Custer had a number of failures as a leader, but his people respected him on the battlefield. He fought with them to achieve the goal.

I realize that this leadership style eventually got Custer killed. Grant’s successes, on the other hand, propelled him to two terms as President of the United States of America.

Does this mean that Grant’s leadership style was superior to that of Custer? This might seem like a silly question with an obvious answer, but when it comes to leading a customer support team, I actually think a balance of both Custer and Grant is required.

Here’s what that balance looks like day to day and week to week for me:

  1. It’s important to talk to customers – If you truly want to feel what customers feel, and understand their perspective, there’s no substitute for interacting with them. And taking 5-10 minutes to solve a customer’s problem can definitely bring a big sense of accomplishment. Every time I interact with customers, I leave with pages of notes on how we can improve our product, service, and documentation.
  2. It’s important to talk to the people serving customers – If you aren’t trained to directly support customers, the next best thing is to shadow the folks on your customer support team and see the work from their perspective. Make time to do this weekly and make it a point to eliminate some of the roadblocks that prevent them from caring for customers.
  3. It’s also important to manage and lead – While it’s sometimes fun to solve individual customer problems, your job as a leader is also to solve problems on a bigger scale. If you spend too much time interacting with customers, who is going to:
    1. Ensure that there’s enough staff to handle the volume of customer interactions?
    2. Train and equip team members to do their job effectively?
    3. Monitor the quality of customer interactions to ensure that customers have a good experience?
    4. Advocate for both customers and the customer support team to the rest of the organization?
    5. Work with engineering to fix critical bugs and service issues?
    6. Work with the product team to continuously innovate based on customer feedback?
    7. Create and improve self-help content so customers can find their own solutions.

Both 1 and 2 will certainly earn you a healthy level of admiration and respect from your team. But, if you can’t find the time to do the management and leadership stuff, you might be left feeling like it’s your own version of Custer’s Last Stand. 

As a customer service leader, do you find yourself struggling with this balance? I know I do. Rarely do I find that I can fulfill all of these responsibilities in the same day. It’s more likely that, if I spend one day on the frontlines, I’ll be very intentional the next to focus on strategic initiatives. Or if I spend the bulk of the day pouring over spreadsheets, I’ll spend the last hour of the day interacting with customers. And for the most part that seems to work.

Finally, if you find yourself wrestling with this balance, you’re probably a pretty good leader. Cut yourself some slack and keep fighting the good fight for your customers and for the people caring for your customers.

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