Why Doing An Excellent Job Could Damage Your Business

Your customers are taking the amazing work you do for granted, and you're not getting business because of it. But there are ways to fix this "paradox of excellence."
December 03, 2013

When Michael Weissman and his colleagues delivered a stellar presentation to a client showing how they could prioritize the company's portfolio, he and his team were dumbfounded when they were criticized for the appearance of their spreadsheet.

“It was unbelievable to us,” says Weissman, co-founder and CEO of SYNQY Corporation, which helps companies deliver and manage interactive online experiences. Weissman and his team have advised many companies, including Apple, Adobe and Symantec.

“Our team worked for months analyzing the company’s entire product portfolio to build recommendations on how to win more of the market,” he says. “Instead of debating the merits or demerits of our recommendations, though, we spent 20 minutes listening to criticism of our fonts and the colors on our spreadsheet.”

Paradox Of Excellence

Fortunately, Weissman immediately understood what was happening. He had recently co-written a book with David Mosby, The Paradox of Excellence, which discusses the phenomenon he and his team experienced that day.

“It was obvious we were victims of the paradox, which says the better you do your job, the more invisible you become to everything but bad news,” Weissman explains. “Your perceived value erodes as customers lose sight of the problems you relieved through the excellent job you’ve done. This common reaction of taking good work for granted stems from customers continually expecting more and more from companies.

“This is best understood through a concept called the 'Revolution of Rising Expectations' [developed] in the 1800s by French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville. He hypothesized that revolutions aren't caused by oppression but rather from unfulfilled expectations," Weissman says. "Today, customer expectations increase faster than company performance, creating an 'entitlement gap.' Customers feel entitled to any performance they believe they deserve—independent of the practicality or affordability of the company delivering that performance.”

Solutions To The Paradox

So what can a small-business owner do to mitigate the paradox of excellence and the resulting entitlement gap? Weissman recommends companies build an “advocacy bank” of positive feelings about your company with your customers.

“In a socially acceptable manner, become transparent about what you provide and continually reinforce your value to your customers," Weissman suggests. "Do this by making them aware of how much you do for them, how fast and how well you do it, how much benefit they get from what you do, and why they should be working with you.”

Weissman offers this example of building positive feelings: “My drugstore tells customers how much they saved by using their loyalty card on a given trip to the store as well as cumulative savings over the life of the relationship. This reinforces the store's complete value during every transaction.”

Remind Customers Of Your Value

Patty Jensen's company also had trouble with customers taking their services for granted until she and her fellow employees became aware of the paradox of excellence. Jensen is vice president of account services for JDA Inc., which assists retail clients in developing an integrated and engaging brand message throughout the purchase process.

“The concept really resonated with us,” Jensen says. “Even though we're an accomplished design and marketing agency and have retained clients for over a decade, we were only as good as our last mistake. Despite our track record, we had to re-prove and rebuild client confidence after minor errors.”

Jensen’s company dealt with the destructive cycle by becoming completely transparent. “Our clients had no idea the amount of detail and time that goes into tracking and monitoring their jobs, so we started showing them production schedules and holding weekly production meetings,” she says. “They came to see the many versions of creative concepts and rounds with production and editing. Once they became more involved, minor human errors were no longer a sticking point for them—they refocused on our creative work and how it accomplishes their goals.”

Reminding clients of how much improvement has occurred because of your work is also critical, notes Jennifer Benbrook, vice president of online marketing for Sequoia Technologies IMS, a search engine optimization and marketing company.

“We've always delivered great search optimization results, but we were only retaining about two-thirds of our customers,” Benbrook says. “After becoming familiar with the paradox of excellence, we realized that our clients had forgotten about their less successful performance prior to working with us. Now, in addition to providing clients monthly performance reports, we illustrate the value of our work by indicating their original performance before they hired us.”

As a result of the changes they made, Sequoia Technologies now enjoys a 98-percent client retention rate, which has meant steadier business for the company.

If you recognize the paradox of excellence at work in your business, it's time to turn the tables in your favor by using these tips to prove your company’s value.

Freelancer Julie Bawden-Davis has written for many publications, including Entrepreneur, Better Homes & Gardens and Family Circle.

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Photo: Getty Images