The other day I had the privilege of hearing U.S. Navy Commander Mike Abrashoff deliver a speech at a conference where we both were speaking. Abrashoff told the story of how he had been assigned to take over the USS Benfold, considered one of the worst ships in the Pacific Fleet. Within a year, Abrashoff turned it into one of best — an astounding accomplishment to say the least.

In his speech, Abrashoff shared many experiences that contributed to his success. One in particular stood out to me as a fundamental principle of great customer service. He explained how he converted the morale of the crew, a difficult task as they were very skeptical of their new boss. He expected excellence, but in order to get that from his crew he had to earn their respect. He did this by employing what he calls “excellence without arrogance.”

The concept is simple: Demand excellence from your crew without displaying an arrogant or elitist attitude toward them. Because of his military rank, Abrashoff automatically commanded respect from his crew. But excellence comes about when crewmembers have respect for their jobs and responsibilities and feel valued by their leader. Commander Abrashoff knew that before he could demand respect from his crew, he first had to prove that he had respect for them. Only then would he have the right to receive respect in turn. Within a short time, mutual respect was apparent, and the crew became dedicated to excellence.

So, what does this have to do with customer service? It’s a perfect example of how great companies earn the respect and loyalty of their customers. This can happen only when a company has earned the respect and loyalty of its employees. And this cannot happen unless leaders first show respect for their employees. And that is the heart of excellent customer service.

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Shep Hyken is a professional speaker and best-selling author. For more information on Shep’s speaking presentations, call 314-692-2200, email shep@hyken.com or go to www.hyken.com.