Man’s Inhumanity Towards Man: Shifting the Leadership and Customer Service Paradigm

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Recently, I was asked, “What does customer service mean to you?” The question continues to reverberate in my mind. Drawing upon several recent experiences, let’s discuss why customer service continues to be useless, debilitating, and demeaning. Finally, let’s imagine a way forward, a new paradigm for understanding the relationship between people as human beings, customers, and employees, who all deserve the best customer experience we, the professional customer-facers, can provide.

For the record, my wife considers the first example a genuine customer service success and remains a pleased customer. Since the first example concerns both of us, I see the customer service provided as a fail and will explain in greater detail below. According to my wife, this example is a win because of the treatment and ease of concluding her part in the customer service example. This separation of beliefs highlights another reason why voice-of-the-customer surveys (VoC) should not be a knowledge performance indicator (KPI) for service professionals. Service delivery is ambiguous, and as the disconnection between my wife and I represents, service value is in the eye of the beholder.

The first example begins with Amazon.com. The end user received their order for a product (the customer was served), which also contained two items not requested, not ordered, and not paid for (an additional hassle for the customer). The customer service department, at Amazon.com, was consulted and the agent informed the customer, “Since the cost to return the products did not justify shipping the products back to Amazon, the customer could keep the products” with Amazon’s blessing. This is not a good customer service experience for several reasons:

  1. The customer now has to dispose of new products not needed or wanted.
  2. The only justification for not returning the products was the cost, e.g. inconvenience, to Amazon.
  3. The underlying problem, receiving parts not requested, did not come with a solution that served the customer; nor, did the option to keep the parts improve the customer experience.

While the customer-facing agent was kind, considerate, and per the company guidelines acting in all good faith to the customer, in the interests of the company the customer was not served even though a solution was generated and the customer went away. Consider the person who was supposed to receive these parts. They will have to call and either receive a bill credit or the parts need to be shipped, thus delaying the other customer as well as not serving that customer by respecting their time, resources, and honoring the customer’s commitment to using the retailer Amazon.com. With both customers not being served, how can Amazon.com, or any business organization, dare refer to these customer interactions as “service.”

Regarding the next two examples, I am purposefully vague about the entities committing the customer “dis-service” at this moment, for a reason. I do not want distractions, e.g. reader bias, to interrupt or interfere with the focus upon the incidents by naming the organizations. The second example comes from an infamously poor government office that has a reputation for providing poor service to their customer base. The third example comes from a truly infamous retailer who is already struggling but generally has much better customer interactions. The second and third examples’ names will be provided later in this article.

While dealing with a large government entity, both in person and over the phone, three separate and divergent answers to the same problem were received over the period of five different opportunities to assist the customer. By stating this experience happened with a government entity, many people already are presuming the experience was bad. It was, and this is an acceptable and reasonable policy for bureaucrats to exemplify. I disagree most heartily that any government office can produce poor customer interactions and skate by blithely. Since all governments cannot operate without forced taxation, the government entity should be providing better, not worse, customer interactions than those found in the private sector and the need to hold the government to a higher standard is sorely lacking. More to the point, the original problem remains unresolved more than 15-days after the problem was promised a solution within 5-business days. What amazes me the most in this affair is the nonchalance, non-interest, and forthright noncommittal that government employees are allowed, nay encouraged, to get away with in customer interactions with those same taxpayers, who both need help and pay the taxes to keep the government employee employed.

Third, a recent example occurred during this now past holiday season; a customer approached a company representative for directions; the company representative did not have any pressing duties to occupy his/her time and can leave his/her assigned post to aid customers in improving the customer experience. I know this, as I checked with the manager and witnessed the customer service provider playing on a cell phone moments before being asked a question. The company representative gave a broad hand, and arm gestures yelled at the customer and appeared in all appearances to be inconvenienced by the customer’s request for directions. The company’s policy states the company representative is to walk the customer directly to their desired destination and await the customer’s pleasure to return to their original post as the only method to handle this type of service request. When this was brought to the manager’s attention, the manager acted shocked in front of the customer raising the complaint, and then took no action, as the additional action was deemed “not warranted” per the manager’s murmured comments to other employee’s in the vicinity. More to the point, the manager took the opportunity to bad mouth the customer raising the complaint and presented the complaint to other employees, who “snickered” at the language the manager used to describe those making complaints, while falsely thinking the customer who is raising the concerns was not paying attention.

Finally, a recent example from a major fast food franchise, while Burger King as a corporation should not be held accountable for the work the franchise performed, the customer service example remains priceless in showcasing the uselessness of serving the customer and the need for training customer interaction professionals. While using coupons, the customer became confused in the “legal print, ” and the order took longer to place and pay for than normal. The cashier at this point does three things: 1. Assumes the confused customer cannot hear; 2. Bad mouth the confused customer to the next three customers who were waiting patiently; and 3. Blames the customer for taking too long to order their food. Later, the cashier approached the confused customer, blamed the incident on him, offered a faux apology, and walked off muttering about stupid customers not understanding the reality of fast food restaurants.

In the third example, do not be distracted by the poor leadership being presented by the manager. Focus instead on the customer interactions: two different customer experiences, both deemed “acceptable customer service” by the powers that control the experiences. Neither customer was served nor was the problems solved. The first customer found a more helpful company representative who followed the company policy, and the second customer interaction with the manager only strengthened the customer’s resolve to continue to avoid the retailer. Two opportunities to grow a new relationship, enhance a new paradigm upon the customer, and promote goodwill and loyalty with the local customer base were missed. Customer interactions can and should be held to a higher standard, and the following defines my position that focusing solely on customer service is useless along with steps to improve.

Focusing solely on “serving the customer” is useless as all the customer receives is a meeting of their stated needs. In the third example, the customer received directions; thus, the customer’s need was met, and service was provided. In the first and second examples, the customer needed information and a plan of action to overcome the situation experienced. Even if the work resulted in the customer needing to take more action, the customer was “technically” served. In the fourth example, the confused customer received his food, was able to use a coupon, and was thus “served.” Is it apparent that merely serving the customer is useless?

The service to the customer, while technically meeting the customer’s needs, remains not just poor but pointless; all because the focus of the organization is honed to simply provide “service” or meet the customer’s stated need at the lowest cost, the fastest interaction, and the least amount of effort for the company and those employed to provide customer service. Sometimes all that is wanted by the customer is to resolve the problem quickly and efficiently and courteously and move forward with their lives. This is yet another reason why freedom is needed in customer interactions to serve as needed for each customer making contact. Customer facing professionals deserve better from their leadership than simply “providing service to customers.” Customer facing professionals need leadership, guidance, and freedom to develop the rapport necessary to shine their personal, professional pride into the customer interaction, all with the intent of not merely “serving a customer’s needs,” but providing opportunities for the customer to be motivated to brag about their unique customer experience.

In practice, the following steps should be the underlying governing principles to move from service to professional pride.

  1. No matter the method for customer interaction, make the time to show genuine interest in the customer. This will require making conversation, employing reflective listening techniques to ensure mutual understanding of the customer’s position, and representing the company with professional pride. For the customer-facing employees to show pride in the company the company leaders need to ensure the “What” and the “Why” is known to the employees’ so the employee can exemplify the “What” and the “Why” to customers. Leadership is key to communicating with a purpose and promoting the spirit of reflective listening in an organization. Make the connection of mutual understanding and most of the customer problems shrink in size.
    1. Active listening is good, but it doesn’t make the grade anymore.
    2. Reflective listening is all about making sure mutual understanding has been achieved.
    3. Mutual understanding provides one interaction resolution, goes beyond simple servicing needs, and displays the pride and professionalism of the company’s commitment to customer interactions.
    4. Reflective listening can be employed in voice, email, instant message, and face-to-face customer interactions and reflects an easily attained step up from only actively listening.
  2. Promote the customer experience by not differentiating between external and internal customers, treat them all as valuable customers deserving attention, focus, eye contact, and validation that their concern is justified and worthy of attention. Act in a manner that the customer deserves the best, and the spirit of customer interactions will infuse all the customers with a commonality of desire, hope, and professionalism. As a customer interaction professional, how much better do you offer superior interactions with customers when you, receive excellent customer interactions from the company you spend time representing?
  3. Remember to make the human connection in human interactions. Using reflective listening, focus on the clues, the body language, the tone of voice, and acknowledge these communication streams through competent action. For example, if the customer is perceived as stressed and is speaking in a clipped and hurried manner, respond kindly, but through accurate and speedy action acknowledging the customer’s stress and meeting the customer’s need by respecting their time. Human interactions are improved through human connections that reflect respect and that embody this principle in every human interaction, and the customer-facing employee becomes a customer’s hero. Using the information above, are we not all customer-facing employees; yes, we certainly are!
  4. Freedom to think and act in the interest of the customer, based upon sound critical thinking skills, is exemplified at the time of the interaction without second-guessing after the interaction. This happens more often in call centers, but every customer-facing employee has had this occur to them. At the moment, the decision appeared the best course of action, but after the interaction/interference of a manager or a quality assurance (QA) employee has second-guessed and provided “advice” that does not provide value to future customer interactions, doubt is planted removing confidence in acting appropriately in the future. Does this mean allowing poor judgment to survive? Absolutely not; it does mean that the “advice” needs to model and reflect value for future decisions, not cast aspersions upon the previous decisions.
  5. SMART Training. Everyone knows the axiom for SMART Goals; training should also embody the principles of and reflect SMART, “Specific, Measurable, Applicable, Realistic, and Timely.” If the training does not meet SMART levels, the training is not valuable to the persons receiving the training. Make the training SMART, and the potential for improving professionalism in customer interactions grows exponentially.
  6. Never stop learning, never stop reaching, and never stop growing. How often does training cease for employees after the new hire training concludes? How is a new employee supposed to meet the demands of a constantly changing customer population without ongoing training? More specifically, should managers, team leaders, directors, VP’s, and the C-Level leaders also continue to learn and receive training in their positions, roles, and company? If the front-line customer-facing employees need constant refresher training, then every customer-facing employee needs constant refresher training that meets the SMART training guidelines and provides value to the individual using that training.
  7. Stop wasting resources on unproductive goals, e.g., serving customers with excellence. Serving customers, even with “excellence,” remains a useless and wasteful activity; eradicate the term “customer service” from the company vernacular and memory. Begin by realizing the opportunity provided in customer interactions to grow the business, supporting customer interactions through reflective listening where mutual understanding is the goal, and by acting upon the mutual understanding achieved.

We, the professional customer-facing providers, can and should be able to onboard these principles and lead the eradication efforts to remove customer service from our focus and professional labels. The importance of not serving the customer, but elevating the customer interaction, cannot be understated. The customer experience needs to be elevated with reflective listening and prompt action to mutual understanding and a sense of mutual growth as partners in using the company’s products and services. The customer is too important to continue to waste resources only to serve. Make the opportunity to deliver and elevate, and the bottom-line will take care of itself abundantly. The organization in the second example is the Department of Veteran Affairs. The organization in the third example is Target.

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© 2017 M. Dave Salisbury
All Rights Reserved – Image Copyrights used under Fair Use and are not included in the authors copyrighted materials.  AZ Quotes retains image copyrights.

Customer Service Leadership through Religious Realism

Authors Note:  This analysis was a concluding project during my doctoral degree on customer relations management.  I post it here as the sentiment contained tracks with a desperately needed shift in the conversation between internal customers to facilitate an improved external customer support system.

For this analysis, a customer is defined as both an internal (fellow employee) and external (a person or organization paying money for your product/service) entity desiring a product or service. Gitomer (1998, 2005, and 2008), Greenberg (2002) and KASET (1988) all provide more detailed distinctions regarding customer classes, service needed, and methods for providing the euphemistic term “customer service.” When discussing customer service Avolio & Yammarino’s ‘Full Range Leadership Theory’ (2002) including the need for strong moral character as found in religious belief and the combination of the philosophies of Realism and Positivism, are employed to help define why multiple principles are required to fully influence the customer interaction while attempting to provide service.

Religious realism is based upon the following philosophies, positivism and realism, with religion as an overlaying guiding measurement mechanism. Positivism is the field of philosophy that deals with obtaining knowledge through logic, mathematics, and human sensory input. For example, an item is understood as hot due to a source of heat transference and the heat is felt through sensory input and understood employing prior experience. Epistemic knowledge is created through experience and through genetic knowledge transference (Hoerr, 2007). For example a parent passes on the knowledge of hot and burn to a child who forever knows the difference between hot and cold. Peale (1992) is called upon in conjunction with Allen (1902) to broaden the positivist philosophy by adding the control of human interaction, the individual’s thoughts, feelings, bias, attitude, and personality. Allen (1902) is especially important for the consideration that thoughts predict outcomes.

Realism deals with that which can be understood but not seen. For example, gravity is real as a principle of science, but seeing gravity can only be understood through the attraction of an object to another, not seen as a power. Consider the item falling from a height, we understand the attraction of the item falling as the gravitational pull upon the object, but cannot see gravity. Hoerr (2007) adds to the body of insight regarding the genesis of knowledge and the genetic nature of learning. While many of Hoerr’s (2007) conclusions are not personally acceptable, Hoerr (2007) does identify many points in both religious leadership and knowledge creation, not fully explained or identified in postmodern thinking supported in Delanty & Strydom (2003).

Religion is used as an overlaying guide Von Braun explains this need succinctly in Miller & Fugal, (2000) [p 35], not to control the principles, but to fully understand the need for human behavior as choice and consequence cycle and the drive to become more than a club wielding species locked in mortal combat with elements, other men/women, and man himself. Religion is the impetus for many of man’s achievements, philosophies, and tenants of thought and action, this is inferred from a discussion by Newton as related by Miller & Fugal (2000) [p 70]. While not a researcher in the traditional sense, as an observer and author, not many come better; Carnegie (1936) and Allen (1902) are employed, as their collective observations regarding positivism, realism, religion, and the influence of thought upon the human interaction remain timeless. Muir (1902) and Frankl (1992) provide the religious overlay, non-denominational, but universal. Muir (1902) focuses upon specific guiding principles fundamental to man, when applied, could be termed religious. Frankl (1992) is employed as the sole purpose for man to strive is explained and examined in detail, again, in a non-denominational environment.

A review of traditional researchers performing work specific to religious leadership in customer service environments is identified encompassing the positivism, realism, and religion inherent in modern leadership. The works of Alon & Chase (2005), Pandey, Gupta, & Arora (2008), and Soltani & Joneghani (2012) are referenced extensively as their combined research provides the fundamental proof of religious leadership being dynamic in organizations, especially in customer interactions. The main theme running through all of these researchers is that no specific religious flavor stands supreme; but that strong religious morals are paramount to the leadership qualities identified by Hamlin & Sawyer (2007) and the customer service proficiencies identified by KASET International (1988). The ideals of strong morals, strong character, and defined positions of ethics, honesty, and specific limits are shown as attractive to customers. Steyrer, employed in Avolio & Yammarino (2002), emphatically outlines the research on character traits, stigma’s, charisma, and many other personality traits distinguished in individual people. Several times, Alon & Chase (2005), Pandey, Gupta, & Arora (2008), Soltani & Joneghani (2012) create the distinction, that while not needed for success, these character traits add depth and satisfaction to success. This is important, as many organizations do not employ religious leadership, realism, or positivism. Yet these organizations are successful or only successful for a short time. The answer as to why religious leadership is important and provides more satisfying success is found in the difference between leadership and management.

Leadership vs. Management

            Hamlin & Sawyer (2007) make the case perfectly clear that leaders are not managers and managers never lead. This theme is fundamental to the remaining analysis for several reasons; namely, leadership in customer service requires on the spot action, decision-making, and accountability, all anathema to managers (Avolio & Yammarino, 2002, p 25). Goldratt & Cox (2004), Gitomer (1998), and KASET International (1988) all espouse similar philosophies in caring for customers. More importantly, Greenberg (2002) discusses opportunity management in relation to customer centered focus which provides the guidance needed to develop people, train people, and improve service, which is the end goal of Goldratt & Cox (2004), Gitomer (1998), and KASET International (1988). The requirement to develop people, train people, thus improving customer service is a key trait in leadership missing in managers, Antonakis & House make this abundantly clear (Avolio & Yammarino, 2002, p 3-33).

While a multitude of factors persist in separating leadership and management, the other factor prevalent in religious based customer service leadership is found through agency theory; the principle is freedom to choose, coupled to accountability for the choice and consequence (Ekanayake, n.d.). Managers employ we, us, team, as deflectors to accountability or to soften consequences for ill, but employ I, me, and mine, when the consequences are perceived as favorable. Leaders are the exact opposite in their speech patterns, accepting accountability for negative consequences but deflecting praise for positive consequences. This phenomenon is documented in many places namely, Allen (1994), Brady & Woodward (2008), Maxwell (2003), and Wren (1995). Goldratt & Cox (2004) do a tremendous job documenting the changes as they occurred in a business with a charismatic leader and the managers who must make “bricks without straw (Exodus, 5:16-18).” The changes that occurred parallel the principles established by Greenberg (2002) and Hamlin & Sawyer (2007). More important is the behavior patterns of charismatic leaders, grounded in religious foundations, produce the organizational patterns discussed by Kreitner & Kinicki (2004), Lundin, Paul, & Christensen (1996). Dumdum, Lowe, and Avolio, quoted in Avolio and Yammarino (2002), increase the research in leadership character traits providing correlational evidence between effectiveness and satisfaction [p 35]. Dumdum, Lowe, and Avolio, from Avolio and Yammarino (2002) [p 53], outlined how “charisma,” “idealized influence,” “inspirational motivation,” and “intellectual stimulation” from leaders outweigh and influence both internal and external customers from a transformational leader. While transactional leadership is effective, the carrot or reward is always a problem in transactional leadership and is not as effective in training people, developing people, or influencing people. Managers often employ the transactional theory of leadership while never striving for the transformational aspects, which are more affective. The research is clear, leadership and management are totally separate principles, and leadership through religious principles is the better option for transforming organizations and the people associated with those organizations.

Spiritual leadership encompasses, the best of human striving, harnessing the power of individual effort and the power of positive thinking. This power to strive is derived from strong morals, developed over time and experience. Some of the experience has been learned genetically (Hoerr, 2007) and cannot be discounted simply because it sits in opposition to the philosophical theories of postmodernism. Soltani & Joneghani (2012) discuss these principles through expanded research coming to similar conclusions about the need for and use of strong morals in leadership and success. This does not mean that those without strong morals cannot succeed, but that the success of those with strong morals appears to last longer and possess a far greater reach and impact. Pandey, Gupta, & Arora (2008) researched the power of religious leadership/management in the corporate culture of an organization and the positive influence this religious culture has upon customer service. Again, this does not make a claim that those without religious leadership cannot be successful; but the research is clear that possessing the strong morals of a religion advances success and improves the customer experience. Religious leadership, corporate culture, and customer receptiveness to strong morals is mentioned due to the need for not losing oneself in corporate cultures. Those employees possessing strong moral character need not lose themselves making Carnegie (1936), Muir (1928) and Peale (1992) more applicable to the separation between manager and leader and the need for knowing oneself more abundantly clear. Kreitner & Kinicki (2004) allude to the same organizational principles discussed by the researchers Alon & Chase (2005) along with Pandey, Gupta, & Arora (2008). The organizational matrix needs strong moral character, epitomized through religious leadership, not management, is clear as detailed by Maxwell (2003).

Goldratt & Cox (2004) do a tremendous job documenting the changes as they occurred in a business with a charismatic leader and the managers who must make “bricks without straw (Exodus, 5:16-18).” The changes which occurred parallel the principles established by Greenberg (2002) & Hamlin & Sawyer (2007). More important is the behavior patterns of charismatic leaders, grounded in religious foundations, produce the organizational patterns discussed by Kreitner & Kinicki (2004) and Lundin, Paul, & Christensen (1996). Dauten (2003) provides impetus for leadership shifts, organizational change, and perspective on how to avoid some of the problems in making the change. Dauten (2003) adds another single variable into the volatile mix of change and leadership over management, a positive attitude as defined and described by Peale (1992). Dauten (2003) and Peale (1992) both emphatically state that without a positive attitude, as reflected through the actions of smiling, the charisma described in Avolio & Yammarino (2002) cannot be properly identified by those being led. Development Dimensions Intl. (2008) spells out retention efforts during change; yet the more telling research document lies in Frankl’s (1992) dissertation for delivering a product or service, changing the organization, all while retaining employees. Tribus (2008) specifically discusses how to change; namely, by being the change you desire to see in others. All of these authors are justified in the research conducted by Alon & Chase (2005), Pandey, Gupta, & Arora (2008), Soltani & Joneghani (2012). The principles of selling, customer leadership, product development, employee retention, and etc. all are developed more satisfactorily and improved through organizations with strong morals through religious leadership. Religious leadership is formed as a paradigm of action and detailed by Kuhn (1996) and Allen (1902). Kuhn (1996) outlines how paradigms are chosen, built, and become cultures in an organization. Allen (1994) introduces the simplicity behind realism and foundational knowledge, lifting, edifying, and providing methods for improving organizations. The keys here are simplicity that Muir (1928) expounds upon. Eden & Sulimani discussed in Avolio & Yammarino (2002) [p 287-308] expound upon the principle of self-fulfilling prophecy (SFP), Allen (1902) would describe this as thoughts becoming actions, predicting results. Regardless, self-fulfilling prophecy (SFP) also referred to as the “Pygmalion Paradigm” “works” (Avolio & Yammarino, 2002, p 288). The realization that expecting more from people, providing the training to achieve the higher standard, and raising the bar, is absolutely effective. This principle is universal in application. Changing how a person thinks, improves performance; expecting more from people, improves productivity measures; leadership, transformational leadership, founded upon strong moral codes and ethical actions, “works” (Avolio & Yammarino, 2002).

Religious Philosophy vs. Postmodernist Philosophy

Delanty & Strydom (2003) pitch post modernist thinking as the new reality and reject the fundamental principles described herein. Post modernist philosophy represented by Delanty & Strydom (2003) strives hard to cast out realism, redefining realism in new terms rejecting the foundation upon which the theory was built (p 442-447; 456-467). Habermas, quoted in Delanty & Strydom (2003), dictates that realism cannot be considered unless it is perpetually washed and filtered through new interpretations. This would be akin to learning about a hot stove by touching it and then re-experiencing the hot stove through burning other parts of the body, just to make sure we understand heat. The religious philosophy discussed herein would simply allow for learning that the stove is hot and looking for the signs of heat through sensory options to protect the individual from future burns or harm. While this analogy is simple, the concepts are easily understood. Postmodern thinking would have the individual continually suffer through new learning experiences in an attempt to understand heat. While the foundations of knowledge are more than acceptable to simply keep the individual from further harm through realistic endeavors and understanding. Bhaskar, Collins, and Habermas, again as displayed in Delanty & Strydom (2003) individually, would argue that the analogy about heat is too simplistic, not transcendental, and not ontologically expressive enough. Yet, Muir (1928) would argue that simplistic is best and more than sufficient to pass understanding from the author to the audience. This same philosophy would carry over into customer service and religious leadership. It is important to note, postmodern thinking will change language, attempt to re-define words, create new words and phrases, all in an attempt to overpower the thinking and thought of the audience. But the foundational principles of realism, strong morals, and leadership as a principle of living always shine through using simplicity.

References

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© 2015 M. Dave Salisbury

All Rights Reserved