The Best Books on Service & Leadership of the Last 25 Years (A Subjective List)

Authors worldwide have tackled the topic of how to deliver better service from every conceivable angle over the last 25 years. We’ve “swum with sharks” to find it, collectively “re-engineered” it, searched for excellence and lost our “cheese” in pursuit of it.

Authors worldwide have tackled the topic of how to deliver better service from every conceivable angle over the last 25 years. We’ve “swum with sharks” to find it, collectively “re-engineered” it, searched for excellence and lost our “cheese” in pursuit of it. Busy as we are, we’ve even sought out service secrets in both “one-minute” increments and from dubious experts ranging from Donald Trump to Attila the Hun. Heck, we’ve even had our “socks knocked off” in pursuit of better service. In a series ten books long, no less.

The point is that we certainly aren’t lacking for authors willing to exchange service “insight” in exchange for 20 bucks. In a word search, suggests 137,102 titles in its library relating to service. Obviously, it’s a popular topic. But quantity does not equal quality, and I subscribe to the belief that information is good, but transformation is better. So I’d like to share my list of the 10 best Service-related books that can actually transform your thinking and people to effect more change relative to hospitality delivery in our industry. Please note that not all of these books relate directly to the topic of service itself; some show you how to hire smart, train right and execute better.

I think I have a keen sense for authors and approaches that truly transform rather than merely inform one’s transactional skills relative to service-giving. Our company teaches hospitality organizations how to measurably improve service and sales (our clients include Walt Disney Company, Starbucks, Chili’s, Burger King, The Cheesecake Factory, Ponderosa, McDonald’s, Darden, KFC, Home Depot, Southwest Airlines and others) and I have personally written two service books that have sold over 500,000 copies, so I feel like I have a keen sense for the subject matter. Anyway, here’s my list of my favorite service–related and leadership books of the last 25 years. You may agree or disagree, but either way, this much is certain: if you have half as much fun reading it as I had writing it, then I had twice as much fun as you.

TopGrading by Brad Smart (Prentice Hall, 1999). The genesis of any successful service program is having the right customer-facing employees to begin with. This book begins with a simple premise: talent wins. It details a comprehensive and logical series of strategies to assemble a Dream Team of crew and managers. The basic philosophy is that you should only select and hire the top ten percent of the performers for every position. Mr Smart contends that there are “A” players available at both $7/hour and at $70,000 per year. But there are also an inordinate number of “B”, “C” and “D” players who also apply for those positions. And because we rely on sloppy screening tools and harried hiring practices, we end up routinely hiring “C” and “D” players, presuming (incorrectly) that “training will fix them.” What’s even scarier is this: “B” managers don’t hire “B” crew, they hire “D” level hourlies.

The Loyalty Effect by Frederick Reichheld (1996 Bain and Company). Once you select, find and Top Grade the absolutely best team members with a penchant for great service-giving, the next logical step is to keep them, right? This book delivers great insight into the process and profitability of creating both internal (employee) and external (guest) customer loyalty. And he not only tells you why, he shows you how. While not strictly a book on “service”, what is possibly more important to the concept itself than keeping both employees and customers loyal?

The Soul of Service by Len Berry (Free Press, 1999). Len is one of the few academics who can successfully combine research and data with an engaging narrative style and voice. This book is a personal favorite because he delivers on the title. He goes beyond profiles of companies that exemplify great service in their culture and behavior, to the specific action items that made them successful, like Patient Hiring, Active Listening, Trust of Company, Competing Against Yourself.

Moments of Truth by Jan Carlzon (1987 Ballinger Publishing). Last Christmas I re-read this groundbreaking work from 1987 and found it as fresh and insightful as anything I’ve read in the last five years. Mr Carlzon defines a moment-of-truth as anytime a customer comes in contact with any part of your organization and forms an impression of the quality of service you deliver based on that interaction. This means that the way our restaurants appear to motorists as they drive by and the way we answer the phone in our restaurants needs to be managed with as much detail as our advertising and marketing campaigns. He suggests we detail the chronological experience a customer has with our organization and then pinpoint every person and process involved in that “moment-of-truth”, specifying both the ideal outcome and the potential barriers to excellent service-delivery at very customer contact point.

Raving Fans: A Revolutionary Approach to Customer Service by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles (1993, William Morrow). Granted, Mr Blanchard has written dozens and dozens of books, most of which sport the One-Minute Manger imprint, but this is the best in my opinion relative to delivering new insight and perspective on the nature of customer service. The spine of the thought process is that “satisfied” customers will shop anywhere. Transforming them into “Raving Fans” ala your favorite sports team means they are unlikely to patronize a competitor. While much lighter on detail and presumptuous than The Loyalty Effect (see above), Raving Fans has a unique message.

At America’s Service by Karl Albrecht (Warner Books, 1989). Here’s another oldie-but-goodie groundbreaking book from 1989 that first opened American’s eyes to the notion that service is our invisible product. Key learning: if you’re not serving the customer directly, you’d better be serving someone who is.

Multi Unit Leadership: The 7 Stages of Building High-Performing Partnerships & Teams (2007, Press) by Jim Sullivan. OK, yes I wrote it, and it may sound self-serving to include it in this list. But I’ve written six other books too, (one of which has sold more copies) but I don’t think any of them has had a bigger impact on our industry. It’s my favorite because of the research it’s based on, the feedback it’s elicited and the passion it draws from its readers. This book is a veritable roadmap to opening your second or 2000th restaurant, exploring the best practices of high-performing multi-unit leaders and the elements of servant leadership that makes them succeed. The book is based on interviews with over 480 high-performing restaurant owners, executives and Area Managers. Some 60,000 foodservice operators have bought it and use it daily. Four key learnings: 1) Good service means never having to ask for anything 2) different is not always better, but better is always different, 3) good service can save a bad meal, but a good meal cannot save bad service, 4) it is a complicated skill to go from hands-on to indirect influence, and 4) your biggest mistake may be not asking what mistake you’re making.

What Clients Love by Harry Beckwith (Warner Business books, 2003).This title, along with his Selling the Invisible book written in 1997, make a dynamic duo for any student-of-service’s library. Using chapter headings like “Lincoln Had No Slides at Gettysburg” to illustrate the importance of passion and conviction when communicating with customers or crew, Mr Beckwith perspective is both fun and insightful. For instance, he cautions that there are degrees of service that customers seek (or expect) depending on the occasion or venue they choose. To wit: “The [customers] were not looking for the service they wanted most, but the one they feared the least. They did not choose a good experience, they chose to minimize the bad experience.” Hmm, so how are you managing service in your restaurant? To maximize the best experience or minimize the worst? Good stuff, and he shows you how to do it.

Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan (2002 Crown Publishing). You can have the best service program in the world, but if you can’t execute it, it’s worthless. This recent best-seller outlines 3 “Building Blocks” of execution and can help you understand the difference between the importance of designing service strategies and getting people to actually implement them. Ideas are easy, execution is hard, and this book is a fairly fun and thoughtful read through the first 135 pages, but loses some steam and verve in the last 135. Still, what I’ve learned from it makes it a valuable asset to help transform service (or any initiative) from a slogan to a practice in any company.

Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest by Peter Block (1996, Berrett-Koehler). Warning: Mr Block does not go for the “quick-fix” approach to service challenges. You will not find “10 Steps’ or “7 Habits” in this book, and in fact, there’s some heavy sledding in here relative to the cerebral side of service in a self-interest society. But you will find a thoughtful and reasoned approach to a new way of thinking about corporate governance, responsibility, balanced and equitable distribution of rewards and a powerful call to the experience of service, which must be felt before it is valued by either service-giver or service-taker.

Good to Great by Jim Collins (2001, Harper Business). Just buy it. Find out why some foodservice companies make the leap…and others don’t.

In summary, I say: Read ‘em and Reap.

By Jim Sullivan

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