Leonard Berry: An interview by Bob Morris

Leonard Berry

Leonard Berry is Distinguished Professor of Marketing, and holds the M.B. Zale Chair in Retailing and Marketing Leadership in the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University. He is also Professor of Humanities in Medicine at the College of Medicine at The Texas A&M University System Health Science Center. During the 2001-2002 academic term, he served as a Visiting Scientist at the Mayo Clinic studying healthcare services. He is the founder of Texas A&M’s Center for Retailing Studies and served as its director from 1982 through June 2000. His most recent books include Discovering the Soul of ServiceOn Great ServiceMarketing Services: Competing Through Quality, andDelivering Quality Service. Berry is a member of the board of directors of several major public companies.

I conducted this interview a few years ago. If anything, Berry’s observations are more valuable now than they were then.

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Morris: From your perspective, in recent years, what have been the most significant changes in the way customer service has been viewed…and provided?

Berry: There has been an increasingly prevalent view that outstanding service is not affordable and that’s a shame.  That is the misconception that price equals value. In fact, poor service is not affordable. To me, value equals benefits received for burdens endured. That is why being easy to do business with is so important to customers. True, no one wants to pay more than is necessary, but it is also true that price is only one of many factors to consider in a customer relationship. And, more often than not, not the decisive factor.

Morris: Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba are among those who are advocates of creating what they call “customer evangelists.”  What do you think of this concept?

Berry: Every company wants to have customers who are passionate about doing business with them and will tell their family members, neighbors and friends about the company’s quality. Of course having such “evangelists” is highly desirable.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read, On Great Service, in it you provide a “framework” of essential steps, “a road map for implementation.” Of the seven, which seems to be the most difficult to implement?  Why

Berry: Cultivating service leadership values and skills throughout the organization.  Service excellence requires inspired, passionate leadership at all levels of an organization; otherwise, mediocrity sets in.  So nurturing leaders is essential – and is a never-ending challenge.

Morris: You discuss a number of exemplary companies which include Longo, Toyota, Lexus, Mary Kay Cosmetics, and Harold’s. What are the most important lessons to be learned from companies such as these?

Berry: There are many lessons.  One of the most important is that they want their customers to “win.”  They are prepared to earn their customers’ loyalty by creating true value for customers and by standing behind what they sell. They want their customers to view each purchase decision as a smart one. They understand the meaning of a  “true customer” to be someone who is glad to have been a customer after the transaction.

Morris: In Chapter 10, you urge that servers be “empowered to serve.” What does this involve and why is it so important?

Berry: It is not enough to hold your people responsible for excellent service; you must also give them the authority to provide it, to “make it right” when a service error is made or when a customer has been inconvenienced. Service failures are inevitable. The challenge is to respond immediately and appropropriately. And that is as true of a waitress in a family-owned restaurant in a small town in Wisconsin as it is of a concierge in the Ritz-Carlton in Boston.

Morris: What was your goal with Discovering the Soul of Service?

Berry: Whereas On Great Service focuses on implementation of service improvement – on moving from service rhetoric to actually improving quality – Discovering the Soul of Service focuses on, through the years, sustaining a soul of service in the organization. Sustaining service excellence is more difficult than delivering it early in a company’s history. In Discovering the Soul of Service I studied a sample of mature companies that had sustained quality service delivery and achieved consistently strong financial performance.  The book teaches their lessons.

Morris: How can service have a “soul”?

Berry: Great service companies have a “soul” that underlies their strategies and day-to-day operations. The company’s soul, its value system, is its foundational center, its inner core. It is very difficult to become and then remain a great service company unless it is a humane community, one that serves its customers and the broader community in which they live. Great service is the result of great values. To say that an organization is “humane” is to say that it consists of people who share humane values, who consider themselves privileged to serve others, both within and beyond that organization. There are several values that drive sustainable business success, which sustain superior service performance. They include excellence in execution, joy in the provision of service, innovation to achieve continuous improvement, respect for associates as well as for customers, teamwork in terms of effective cooperation and collaboration, and impeccable integrity in all dimensions of behavior.

An organization’s “soul” is demonstrated in its non-negotiable values, and with its performance always consistent with those values. The message is, “This is who we are” and “This is how we do what we do.” Those involved not only cherish the core, indeed defining values; they demonstrate them in serving others.

Morris: You have identified what you characterize as the nine drivers of sustainable business success. Is any one most important?

Berry: Of the nine “drivers,” I think values-driven leadership is the most important because everything else depends on it. And I mean values-driven leadership at all levels and in all areas of an organization. Only then can there be strategic focus, trust-based relationships, and executional excellence.

Morris: Throughout both, On Great Service and Discovering the Soul of Service, you place great emphasis on the importance of trust. Insofar as great customer service is concerned, how can senior management help to achieve and then sustain trust throughout an entire organization?

Berry: Those who comprise senior management must be passionate about treating their own people as well as their customers with respect. If you have the right core values and insist that they are non-negotiable, then you will soon identify those who do not share them while attracting others who do.  Really, it all comes down to trust. Senior management should be able to say, “We trust our folks.” Those who cannot be trusted should seek career opportunities elsewhere.

Employees should be able to say, “We trust senior management. They will do what is right for me and everyone else.” Trust is the “glue” which holds any organization together, especially during tough times or when a specific crisis occurs.

And most importantly, customers should be able to say “I am confident doing busines with these people. I trust them to do what they say they will do. When something is messed up, they will make it right. They will take good care of me.”

Morris: One final question. In your opinion, in which areas of customer service are there still compelling needs for substantial improvement?

Berry: Companies must reduce employee turnover, especially among the service providers. You simply cannot sustain anything with high turnover except mediocre performance. Companies should know who their most valuable service providers are and then do everything possible to accommodate their needs. What is most important to them? Ask them.

Next, it is important to realize that IT can be of substantial benefit to customers (e.g. making it easier to do business with you) and that is why it should be used….but not merely to save money by eliminating certain labor costs.  But many managers rely much too heavily on IT rather than on people. I have no doubt that, if properly executed,  IT can help to achieve and then sustain great service IF it benefits both customers and serice providers.

I call this “Berry’s Law”: When a company implements a new policy or technology merely to save itself money and customers end up hating that policy or technology, the result is that the new policy or technology costs the company far more than it saves…and even those who had once been the company’s “evangelists” will be lost, sometimes forever.

Finally, I want to stress the importance of effective communication and, especially, of trust between those at a company headquarters and those in the “field,” wherever that may be. There is so much of value to be learned from direct and frequent contact with customers. Those who have such contact must also be alert to emerging trends in the given marketplace and to what competitors are up to. They need to share all this with HQ.

Meanwhile, HQ should provide the support needed by those serving customers while minimizing paperwork, simplifying channels of authority and communication, and trusting their people to do what is right for each customer. There is nothing more discouraging to a service provider than having to protect a customer from abuse by one’s employer.

Bottom line: If you don’t provide great service to your people, don’t expect them to provide great service to your customers.






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