Service with a Shrug

Firms have forgotten how to serve their customers. Here are three ways to get back to the basics before it’s too late
confused grocer

Essay by Barry Cross

Somewhere along the line, we grew complacent about what we expected of our service providers. As a result, mediocre service has become accepted and commonplace. The actual tipping point or catalyst for this mediocrity is neither apparent nor particularly important; the fact is that we are more likely now than ever before to experience poor or average service rather than great service.

In the last 30 days, for example, I have:

  • paid $5 for a lukewarm coffee beverage from a global provider whose name is ubiquitous with premium coffee;
  • waited 15 minutes for a pizza at another chain that was “coming right out of the oven”;
  • waited four weeks for an “in stock” item from an online purveyor of goods; and
  • had several inexplicable flight delays involving major airlines.

Mediocrity is now commoditized. When did it become okay to pay $5 for an average coffee experience that cost the establishment about 40 cents to produce?

Mediocrity is also tolerated beyond reason. Rarely do we protest poor service by simply walking away. An old adage in service operations is that customer loyalty is only as good as the lack of a better service next door. These days, the adage hardly holds. More likely is that convenience and location will trump good service.

An old adage in service operations is that customer loyalty is only as good as the lack of a better service next door. These days, the adage hardly holds

But even though we may have become lazy or even apathetic as consumers, many industries will need to reconsider the existential cost of providing mediocre service. In a number of industries undergoing disruptive change, firms struggle with finding their place in the new business world. Such is the case with telecom providers: many of us have cut the cord with landlines and cable television. The telco we deal with offered us free landline services. . . one year after we had cut the cord. Why offer free or discounted services your customers don’t want? Focus instead on quality, speed, or security. Be different! Be best!

Many service-based firms rely on volume, location, or a lack of a better alternative next door.  Others rely on customer inertia or laziness or loyalty programs. Where does your firm fit in?

Here are a few thought starters in case this is a new dialogue around the office:

  • Are we the best at what we do or just big?
  • Do customers love us or do they come in out of habit or because we are nearby?
  • Do customers choose to shop here or are they locked in with a contract?

The first point is most important. Can you identify what your firm is truly best at? Is that “bestness” something customers care about? Will they travel further or pay more for that service skill? If the answer to any of these questions is negative or ambiguous, you have work to do.

Service Prescription

Here are three things your organization needs to nail down as it tries to differentiate itself from the competition.

Identify your best or most important customer. Who are they? What do they want? The key here is to focus on a target group and stop trying to make the entire service population happy.

Get lean. Lean is about resource allocation rather than reducing the head count or “trimming the fat.” Realign resources to serve your target customers (see above). Make sure everyone within the firm knows who you are seeking to satisfy and what their roles are in making that happen.

Fix your processes. Most service problems are related to either people or processes. You likely have pretty good people, so seek help to map core processes — especially those that directly impact customers — and then make them better.

These are pretty simple points but they can’t be overlooked. Imagine the smile on your face when that coffee is delivered piping hot, as ordered, with your name is spelled correctly on the cup. Or the feeling in the airplane cabin when you pull back from the gate on time. We have all experienced these positive outcomes before, but they are far too infrequent in repetitive services.

As a service provider, stop making excuses and start making service excellence the expectation. There is no room for mediocrity in our service strategies or execution.


Barry Cross is assistant professor and Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Operations Strategy at Smith School of Business, Queen’s University. He is author of Simple: Killing Complexity for a Lean and Agile Organization.

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