Article | 5 min read

How servant leadership leads to great customer service

As we approach Veterans Day, hear firsthand from a member of Zendesk’s veteran employee community, who shares how servant leadership is directly related to customer service.

By Leigha Wanczowski, Recruitment Marketing and Employer Brand Manager

Published November 10, 2022
Last updated November 10, 2022

As part of my job, I have the great privilege of talking to our employees and learning more about what led them to their current roles, what excites them today, and where they hope to grow—and go—in the future. In advance of Veterans Day 2022, I spoke to employees located in the U.S. who have served in the military, many of whom are active participants in our veteran employee community. This community knows deeply and well what it means to be committed to the service of others—and to the common good.

As a customer service organization, we’re reminded each year that we can all learn a lot about service through our veteran community. Here, Zendesk Senior Software Engineer Nick Klauer—who is also a squad leader in the U.S. Army Reserve—generously shares his personal history and point of view on how his military career informs his job today.

You were already working as a software engineer when you joined the military. What prompted you to add military service to your career track?

I had a confidence crisis about what I wanted to do with my job and my life. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue doing the software thing—not because I didn’t like it, but because I wasn’t sure if imposter syndrome was affecting me. And so I joined the military and gained a ton of leadership skills and experience over 17 years of service. I actually joined the United States Marine Corps Reserve where I was enlisted before becoming an officer in the United States Army Reserve.

You’ve advanced to a senior software engineer role where you’re managing a team. Did the military help you figure things out?

My experience with the military has made it so that I’m fairly comfortable dealing with ambiguity because you’re often told to do something, and you’re never told how to do so. The goal is the mission first but with servant leadership: You’re there to serve your subordinates and help them succeed. It’s not about telling people to do things. It’s about supporting them as much as you can to get the work done. More specifically, it’s about using your abilities and leverage to empower your team.

How has your military service helped you in today’s rapidly changing tech environment, specifically at Zendesk?

Those skills have translated really well through my civilian work. I’m able to correlate the problem we’re solving, who we’re helping, and how I can actually assist and not make it self-centered. The experience that I’ve gotten in the military has really built my confidence and my leadership skills while helping me identify things that make me more of a team player and able to help people.

What made Zendesk interesting to you when you first joined?

I joined Zendesk because I saw an opportunity to take on more responsibility and contribute to work that was making a significant impact. I’ve been here for about four years, and I still love the work that we’re doing. The customer focus was compelling to me. Putting customers first really lends itself well to the whole concept of servant leadership. We also apply that obsession we have with customer service to our employees, which means our teams are much more caring about the work they do and how it impacts everyone. Empathy leads.

It sounds like your team could be responsible for many things with your approach to customer service. How do you prioritize work and the people on your team?

It always comes down to empathy. You can’t tell what anyone else’s problem is until you talk to them and try to understand them. I’m very open about my background, where I’ve come from, and the kinds of things I’m dealing with. And I’m willing to share that stuff with my team so that they can help as well.

When it comes to trying to decide between one set of requirements or another, it is mostly what’s best for the business and then who’s going to be helped the most. Who’s the customer, the person that we’re trying to help? So much of it is building an understanding with your coworkers to understand what their constraints are, and to know how to help them. It seems simple, but if you make this your process, the solutions become obvious and there is less friction because you know each other’s priorities and what the value is.

As a military veteran, were there certain benefits you were looking for when you joined Zendesk?

Being a single father of four boys, I took faith in the fact we’re talking about customers and valuing the person. I knew we had programs in place that allow for flexibility and mental health benefits. When it comes to veterans, we have many initiatives we’re working on. We’re trying to make it more clear that veterans add a certain level of cultural benefit that you can’t get very easily from other places.

You’re now part of our veteran employee community at Zendesk. What progress has this group been involved in as far as those initiatives you mentioned?

Most people think that when we are activated in the guard or reserve, we continue to be paid the same, but that’s not the case. Zendesk approved a policy that allows compensation to be supplemented for up to six months of a deployment, which did not exist prior to my mobilization to support the Afghan refugee crisis. If that program had not been in place, I would have had to figure out how to make ends meet. But that additional compensation then gave my family a safety net; they were taken care of. That kind of stuff shows the company cares and helps us feel like we’re not just a number.

If you were talking to a fellow veteran about joining Zendesk, what about our culture and values most align with military service?

One thing the military tries to promote is this thing about taking initiative and solving the problem. And I do think that you’re given quite a bit of freedom to do that. If you see a problem, you can actually start proposing changes. If you’re that kind of person who wants to pursue change, there’s an opportunity for you to be able to voice your opinion, in the spirit of improvement, here.