Every Local Business Needs a Servant Leader

Posted on January 16, 2014

Earlier, we argued for the internet marketing ABCs: your website must “always be closing.” Your website is your 24/7 salesman. When built right, it will sell and close effectively.

You, on the other hand, should not operate under the ABC paradigm. Rather, you should ABS, “always be serving.”

In other words, you serve; your website closes.

This sounds strange, I know. We typically don’t associate selling and service.

And that’s partly the point of this article.

We typically don’t value anything with service, unless we tag charity and tax deduction to it. We typically don’t take service that seriously.

But I’m arguing for its seriousness. I’m arguing for servants in businesses. I’m arguing for a new mindset in franchises across the world. I’m arguing for a challenging but profitable approach to your leadership and marketing strategy. I’m arguing for these twin truths:

Do nothing less than serve. Be nothing less than a servant leader.

There. I said it. Servant leader.

Servant leadership? Sell as you serve? That can’t be effective. It sounds counterproductive, a mere ideal at best. But, no. Service is not counterproductive. It’s counterintuitive, but in no way will service harm your selling.

In fact, in the long run, servant leadership will ensure future sales.

Sound crazy? Read on. It gets crazier.

The Servant as Leader: Robert Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership

Let’s clarify what I mean by servant leadership. I don’t just mean better service at McDonald’s, or faster oil changes at Pep Boys, or quicker Macchiatos at Starbucks. What I mean is deeper, weightier, counterculture:

A leader serves before he leads, and leads as he serves.

What does this mean? Listen to the voice of Robert Greenleaf, mastermind behind servant leadership, for some clarity.

The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. He is sharply different from the person who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve—after leadership is established….The difference [between servant-first and leader-first] manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. —the Servant as Leader

Boom. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Which is why I didn’t. Greenleaf was a genius: you place others before yourself. You serve these people and ensure their highest priorities are met. Then, leadership forms from your service.

Let’s draw out implications for local marketing. Franchises need strong leaders to succeed. Similarly, franchises need local leaders who are personal, empathetic, and caring to succeed. And that is the essence of a servant leader.

So, if you are a business owner, a franchise manager, or even an employee, consider this:

Serve your customers before you sell to them; then, sell as you serve.

Let’s unpack this slowly. Leaders serve (1) to encourage sustainable relationships by (2) empathizing and (3) listening.

A Sticky Relationship: Servant Leadership makes Meaningful Encounters

Businesses depend on customers. And long-lasting businesses depend on the habits of lifelong, loyal customers. In fact, the probability of selling to an existing customer is 60-70%. Compare that to the 5-20% probability of selling to a new customer, and you will see why loyal customers are worth 10x as much as their first purchase.

So, whether local or franchised, you want customers to make your business a habit. You want sustainable relationships. To return, to keep returning, and to encourage others to return: that is the purpose of your local marketing.

What makes customers return? These powerful statistics point to an answer:

  • 68% of customers leave your business because they perceive you as indifferent.

  • Companies that prioritize the customer generate 60% higher profits than their competitors.

  • 8 out of 10 customers would pay more to ensure superior customer service.

  • 59% of Americans would try a new brand for a better experience.

Meaningful encounters: that’s what makes customers return. And, you guessed it, serving customers creates these encounters.

As said in an earlier article, meaningful encounters are memorable touchpoints. They can be anything from keeping the bathrooms clean, to pardoning that 47 cents your customer can’t seem to find in her purse, to refunding your customer’s dropped hamburger. They do not bring immediate gain—not many people buy three more subs because the cashier said have a good day—but they do show that you care. And, in many ways, that is far more important.

Consider an example from the book Satisfaction by J.D. Power IV. An AVIS bus driver passed a man at an airport. Then he passed him again. Then he passed him a third time. Finally, the bus driver stopped to ask which bus the man was waiting for. Frustrated, the man told him Hertz. The AVIS bus driver offered to take him to the Hertz check-in even though the man was not a AVIS customer. The bus driver’s kindness was significant for the man, and the next time the man rented a car, he picked AVIS.

This is the power of meaningful encounters: they guarantee future sales. And as seen in this story, to be most effective, you must understand the people you are serving. You must step in their shoes. You must empathize.

Empathy as Creative Empowerment: Leadership that Understands

Empathy is a small word with a loaded connotation. At its heart, empathy means “in” (en) one’s “feelings” (pathy), literally feeling what another feels. By sharing another’s feelings, the empathetic one encourages and strengthens. To the hurt, he heals. To the rejected, he accepts. To the scarred, he comforts.

Thus, empathy is not something to take lightly. Rather, it is a heavy intellectual exercise. Greenleaf calls empathy the “imaginative projection of one’s own consciousness into another being.” Empathy requires service, mental service.

Leaders who empathize with clients, then, are leaders who mentally serve. Taking themselves off the power stool, they allow the client to talk, to suggest, to teach. They make every encounter with customers meaningful,  because they make the other feel important.

If a customer knows you are treating them in this way, they will feel less like a customer and more like a friend. And that is the best client to have. They know you, and you know them. You call them by name. They respond energetically.

Customers that are friends feel empowered. This is especially true of young adults and children, not to mention the outcasts, the broken, and the depressed, that is, those who really need friends. Call them by name, and they will feel noticed. They will feel trusted and trusting. They will feel welcomed. And, they will bring you their friends, your potential friends. “Leaders who empathize,” says Greenleaf, “are more likely to be trusted.” Their friends can easily be your friends, your new customers, too.

Perceiving your Customer’s Needs: Leadership that Listens

Empathy implies a good deal of perception, mostly auditory. Indeed, to know a customer’s needs, one must first listen to that customer.

Just as empathy is an intellectual exercise, so, too, is listening. In fact, the Greeks had a peculiar way of distinguishing “listening” from “hearing.” The word for hearing was “akouw.” Listening, on the other hand, was “hypo-akouw,” literally “hyper-hearing.” Listening, to them, was an attentive exercise, one that implied intense mental awareness.

Listening, then, is not only connecting words to ear: its connecting words to mind.

Listening to a customer’s needs is not a new concept. Leaders who remain leaders know that listening empowers leadership. Listening to clients and customers—whether its complaints, feedback, or suggestions—allows leaders to know what they are doing right, what they are doing wrong, and what they can do better. Listening encourages dialogue: the back and forth conversation between client and employee, customer and manager, the served and the servant leader.

Let’s move away from the general and point to a specific example. When I was a freshman in college, I started going to a local sandwich shop, Momma Goldberg’s. Because of their student discount—50% off all subs—my friends and I made MG’s a weekly thing. The home of my college, Lagrange, GA, was relatively small. MG’s had several locations around Georgia and Alabama. So, I was surprised that my big hometown, Newnan, did not have one. After one lunch break, I told this to the manager.

“You know, you would make a lot of money in Newnan.” I said to one of the workers. “You think so?” “I know so.” The young worker grabbed his manager. “This young man says Newnan is a profitable spot.” The manager looked at me and smiled. “Really?” “Yep. And I know a spot for it, too.” “Where?” “There’s an empty building right next to Starbucks by interstate 85. Open by that Starbucks, and you’re sure to be in business.”

Not long after this conversation, Momma Goldberg’s opened in Newnan at the place I requested. And, after three years, the business thrives.

Now, of course, the manger could have planned a Newnan MG’s. But, by listening to me, and by indicating that he was listening, I felt heard. Indeed, I felt good. When I go to the Newnan MG’s, I think back to that conversation. And, it makes me feel useful.

Thus, listening is not just acknowledging the words you hear. It’s acting on them. The best servant leaders are those that use real conversations to improve reality. Whether it’s adding a new ingredient to a dish, finally creating that social media marketing plan, or even hiring a website crew to establish an online presence, acting on a client’s suggestions is healthy, sustainable, and, eventually, profitable.

Again, Greenleaf offers valuable advice to the one willing to listen:

“A true, natural servant leader automatically responds to any problem by listening first. When he is a leader, this disposition causes him to be seen as servant first. This suggests that a non-servant who wants to be a servant might become a natural servant through a long arduous discipline of learning to listen….I have seen remarkable transformations in people who have been trained to listen. It is because true listening builds strength in other people.”

Servant Leadership Ensures Future Sales

Again, we point out the value in servant leadership: customers become friends. As friends, they keep returning.

By its nature, local marketing needs servant leadership. In future posts we hope to elaborate servant leadership more. But, first, we want to listen to your opinions. Have you applied servant leadership in your small business or franchise? Has it been successful? Has it improved customer retention? Does another leadership model work better?


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