v FORTUNE™ Partners Honor Best-In-Class Customer Service Executives | Fortune.com

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What makes a customer service leader?

Keeping one step ahead of clients. Anticipating their needs in real time. Eliminating their pain points at every opportunity. Connecting employees to the higher purpose of caring for the people they serve. That’s what superior customer experience means to best-inclass companies—and it’s what shines through the 10 executives chosen for the FORTUNE™ Partners Service Leaders Awards for 2017.

Honored for their exemplary work were:

George Angelato, vice president, customer experience and loyalty at Hyland Software
Joseph Bocanegra, vice president of customer service for the job platform, ZipRecruiter
Nick Gregory, senior vice president of hotel operations at Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants
Tina Lamb, vice president of claims production support at Aflac, an insurance company
Emily McEvilly, vice president of services at Workday, a provider of cloud applications for finance and human resources
Melissa Porter, vice president of customer relations at Tailored Brands, a holding company for men’s apparel stores
Gardell Powell, chief client officer at Veterans United, a mortgage lender
Mike Powell, vice president of technology solutions at RIM Logistics, a supply chain management operation
David Sangster, executive vice president of operations at Nutanix, a cloud computing software company
Marcie Smith, vice president of customer experience at Macmillan Learning, a publishing company

The awards program, sponsored by Salesforce, culminated at Dreamforce, a high-profile tech industry event held in San Francisco in November, where winners were feted by 170,000 of their peers.

“This award is a big honor,” says Mike Powell of RIM Logistics. “We don’t have a tangible product, so being recognized as innovative and a leader in service is paramount to us as an organization. Most of our competitors put a line of business application at the center of their world—tracking and tracing, freight management—things of that nature. That didn’t make sense to us. We’ve put customer relationship management at the center of our world and the honor acknowledges how important doing that is.”

FORTUNE™ Partners Top Service Award winners during a panel discussion at Dreamforce. From left: Shep Hyken (moderator and member of the judging panel), Joseph Bocanegra (ZipRecruiter), Marcie Smith (MacMillan Education) and Mike Powell (RIM Logistics).

Joseph Bocanegra of ZipRecruiter seconds the thought and says putting clients first in all that his company does is demanding—but ultimately satisfying. ZipRecruiter handles 250,000 interactions every month between employers and job seekers.

“We humanize and personalize every exchange we have, whether it’s with people looking for a job or trying to hire,” he says. “We dedicate time for our employees to handwrite letters and words of encouragement to each one of our job seekers to keep them going on with their search. The service industry isn’t glamorous, and the job can be monotonous, so we really remind our employees about the greater purpose of what they do—changing people’s lives.”

One consistent theme that emerged among the winners was that they tend to view their employees as customers, too—and believe getting them onside and committed to excellence is key to their success.

“Our culture of having fun, delivering results with integrity, and enhancing people’s lives has fostered happy and productive employees, says Gardell Powell of Veterans United. “That directly influences the client experience, of course.”

Another point on which all agreed was that no matter how advanced and fine-tuned their customer relationship management has been, they can’t afford to rest on their laurels.

“Our surveys have found that our customers—some of them young students—would actually prefer going to the dentist to calling customer service,” says Macmillan Learning’s Marcie Smith, who adds that her company has introduced a self-serve model in response. “We have to meet all our customers needs as proactively as possible—and in a constantly evolving way. We’re all about progress in that arena—not perfection. So we’re also using artificial intelligence to learn as much as we can about our customers up front. That way, we can serve them more efficiently and reduce their frustrations by not making them have to repeat the same information over and over to different people.”

Mike Powell added that it’s also important to meet customers on the channels where they’re most comfortable—via text or through social media—because listening to them is vital to a good relationship.

The winners cited certain common benchmarks that help them measure how effective they’re being in the customer service realm. Do they have a collaborative relationship with their clients? Are they looking beyond their own industries for best-in-class customer service techniques? Are they lighting a fire under their employees and bringing out their passion to get them to empathize with the issues customers face?

Of course these leaders have something else in common when it comes to customer service: they push themselves to do better every day. And as great companies look to gain their clients’ loyalty by applying the techniques cited by those in the 2017 winner’s circle, this constant state of improvement is an essential piece of the leaders' equation.

Being a FORTUNE™ Partners Service Leaders Award winner is ultimately an important acknowledgment from industry peers that your impact on the customer experience, and on the industry as a whole, is making a difference.

“This is acknowledgement that the pivot we’ve made toward giving our customers a great experience is on the right track,” says Marcie Smith. “That’s tremendously affirming.”

FORTUNE™ Partners would like to thank Salesforce Service Cloud for sponsoring this year's FORTUNE™ Partner Service Leader Awards.