What We’re Reading: Uncommon Service by Frances Frei & Anne Morriss

Whether you’re a small business owner, a team leader for a department in your company, or a director in a non-profit organization, you’ve probably asked yourself this question at some point, “Am I meeting my customers’ demand for great service – and saving money and resources at the same time?”

Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei and Anne Morriss (the Managing Director of the Concire Leadership Institute) take on this very question in their book, Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business in a refreshing way that resonates with us because we are always striving to give our partners the best service possible (and fixing ways in which we’re not).

Without trying to summarize everything we loved about this book, here are three points that Frei makes that spoke to us.

You have to be ok with being bad in the service of great.
Another way to say this is you can’t be all things to all people without being mediocre (or even completely failing) at some of those things, and the predictable outcome of this mediocrity is dissatisfaction from the customer.

If this is true, why do we even try to be good at everything instead of deciding to be bad at some things in order to be great at others? It’s simply human nature to want to avoid weakness or use weakness as a guide for where to improve.

“When your weaknesses are enabling your strengths, reducing the gaps between you and your competitors can actually undermine performance, turning a well-intentional improvement effort into a strategically dangerous paint-by-number exercise.”

By honoring your constraints and weaknesses, you get the privilege of delivering excellence in your areas of strength and therefore, be recognized for exceptional service.

Two ubiquitous examples of this concept are Southwest Airlines and IKEA. Southwest Airlines understands that in order to be excellent in providing low prices, frequent departures and friendly service, it has to be poor in providing extensive on-board amenities and having an extensive network of airports. Similarly, IKEA has been credited with revolutionizing the process of furniture buying to be fun, promote independence, and be a destination experience because it’s prioritized those attributes over lots of locations and selling pre-assembled items.

Talk to your customers.
It’s easy for us to become overconfident in the value of the service we’re delivering (especially when we compare ourselves to our competitors). Failure happens to the best of service firms so we can easily justify our own service failures and even give reasons as to why those failures are unavoidable.

We should constantly be reminding ourselves to stay “tethered to reality” and the best way to do this is through an ongoing dialogue with the customer. Don’t outsource, don’t delegate, don’t sanitize. Pick up the phone, and confront the truth — both good and bad.

Service Excellence = Design x Culture
The design of your product or service offering is only one half of the equation. The culture of your company or organization is equally important. Why? The culture of a company will naturally spill over to its customers.

The retail site, Zappos, is recognized as an incredibly successful online shoe retailer that has fostered unmatched customer loyalty. This isn’t because Zappos has the lowest prices or the most comprehensive inventory, though.

Rather, it is because they have made providing exceptional customer experience its highest value and priority. And, the first step in delivering this kind of service is in hiring the right people that embody their company (“Zappos family”) values. They are famously known for their basic employee training which lasts four weeks and, at the end of the third week, every trainee is made The Offer – a $2,000 payoff, no questions asked, to just walk away. Zappos understands that they can’t provide excellent service unless every employee is completely sold out on its values.

Amazon: Uncommon Service

If you’ve read Uncommon Service we’d love to hear what your favorite take-aways were and what parts you agreed or disagreed with.

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