Guru Review: Uncommon Service

Great customer service isn't an elusive ideal, but a product of careful design in your business culture and organization
February 07, 2012

It should come as no surprise that the primary driver of our economy is no longer what we make but how we serve each other. Eighty percent of jobs in the U.S. and 80 percent of the gross national product are currently tied to the service industry. And not only is service our primary economic function, but according to psychologists, it's also a core human ambition–we are born with an innate desire to help each other.

Yet when you zoom in on our day-to-day interactions, the majority of our service experiences are overwhelmingly negative. So, why the disconnect? Why is great service still so rare?

In Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business, authors and experts Frances Frei and Anne Morriss argue that despite the fact that we’re wired for service, it’s not enough to simply demand service excellence from your employees. Instead, companies must design excellence into the very fabric of the organization.

“It’s easy to throw service into a mission statement and periodically do whatever it takes to make a customer happy," write the authors. "What’s hard is designing a service model that allows average employees–not just the exceptional ones–to produce service excellence as an everyday routine."

Uncommon Service offers a pathway to a system that allows companies to deliver consistently great service, regardless of the industry, employee, customer or positioning. They argue that taking care of customers is not the exclusive domain of high-end companies, it’s a basic imperative for anyone who wants to survive in a volatile economy, where the old rules of competition no longer apply.

The authors begin with a single big idea: Great service is not mysterious–it's the product of careful design and deliberate tradeoffs–you just need the stomach to make hard choices.

The authors identify the four hard-hitting, no-nonsense truths for delivering uncommon service:

You can’t be good at everything

Striving for all-around excellence leads directly to mediocrity. Achieving service excellence requires underperforming on the things your customers value least, so you can over-deliver on the dimensions they value most. Decide what trade-offs you will make–where you will do things badly, even very badly,in the service of great–based on deep insight into who your customers are and what they need operationally. Then be unapologetic about it.

Someone has to pay for it

Great service must be funded, or you risk giving it away. Either find a palatable way to charge your customers for it, reduce costs while improving the experience, or get customers to do some of the work for you. Choosing among these strategies will depend on both industry dynamics and the specific relationship you have with your customers.

It’s not your employees' fault.

Too many organizations have designed service models for phantom employees, superstar employees they wish they had but actually don't. Hiring those superstars–or getting your current employees to act more like them by “trying harder" is not the solution. Instead, you must design a service model that sets up average employees to deliver excellence as a daily routine.

You must manage your customers

Customers are major players in any service experience. They don't just consume or purchase the service; they help create it, even if it’s just by showing up for an appointment on time. You need a strategy for managing them, just as you need a strategy for managing your employees. You and your customers must work together to deliver great service.

The authors also offer a plan for shaping the other half of the service equation: organizational cultureCulture defines an enormous part of the customer experience. Design and culture must work together: ”A great service organization needs to get both right, the service design and the culture that animates it. Both must be pointing in the same direction, toward the outputs you’ve identified as critical to your organization's success."

I found Uncommon Service to be a refreshing, frank and honest look at how any organization can increase profitability, satisfaction and competitive advantage by delivering consistently outstanding service.

I especially liked the authors' argument that an organization cannot be excellent without first being bad in some service dimensions. Resources are always limited, and so you have to optimize, and make smart tradeoffs. To be able to invest in excellence in the areas your customers care about, you need to conserve your resources elsewhere. The authors call it "bad in the service of great." In other words, you can try to be great at everything–and many companies do–but you will exhaust yourself along the way, and the outcome is nearly always mediocrity, which, let's face it, is a death knell these days.

I suspect a good many leaders will find the truth of Uncommon Service hard to accept. As the authors state, "Giving up the fantasy of all-around excellence is hard, understandably hard. For mission-driven companies, in particular, it almost sounds immoral at first–until you realize that on the other side of it is the chance to be great, truly great at the things that matter most."

I believe the authors tee up a critical challenge for anyone in charge: get your people and culture–values, purpose, brand ideals–aligned to your service design, or kiss service excellence goodbye.

"Customers remember how you make them feel. The employee handbook only gets you so far in making sure your customers feel cared for. For everything else, for all the discretionary decisions that your employees make–how they answer the phone or respond to an unprecedented request–you need a strong culture. Culture tells everyone what to do in the absence of clear instruction, and there’s a lot of ambiguity in service management. Customers are wonderfully unpredictable."

How wonderfully true.