Author: How to Deliver Truly Great Customer Service

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: 'Want to Offer Great Service? Stop Trying so Hard' by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss are the authors of "Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of your Business."

What does it take to deliver great service? That’s the question that fuels our work, and that has challenged us for more than a decade.

We live in a service economy. We give more of our money to companies that get service right. We make serious commitments to take care of our customers, and yet we’re still, for the most part, falling short. Service excellence is rare.

Uncommon Service
Source: Cave Henricks Communications
Uncommon Service

Here’s our take on the disconnect: it’s not about trying harder or deciding the customer is always right. It’s about setting up employees to produce great service casually, as a daily routine. It’s about embedding exceptional service into the very blueprints of a business model.

We break this process down into four categories, which we call the Four Service Truths.

Outstanding service businesses have internalized these truths on their way to producing reliable excellence:

1. You can’t be good at everything. There are tradeoffs in every great service offering. Take the Mayo Clinic. Mayo excels by giving its patients what they want most: immediate access, often same-day access, to world-class care. Ah, but there’s a catch. In exchange for access, patients are asked to give up control over which physician they see. Mayo’s customers are happy to make this deal because they value access much more highly than control. That’s the essence of this truth. Excellence requires underperforming on the dimensions your customers value least so that you can overperform on the dimensions your customers value most. It requires the willingness to be bad in the service of great.

2. Someone has to pay for it. It costs more to deliver better service, to hire more front-line people, for example, or to build a more intuitive interface for your web customers. These investments must be funded in some way. The least creative approach is to ask customers to pay extra, which is a perfectly reasonable model (see FedEx vs. the Post Office). Consider others: reducing back-office costs, or improving service in ways that also reduce costs, or getting customers to want to do some of the work for you. We love checking ourselves in for flights these days because airlines have made it a better experience than the costly, full-service option of dealing with an employee. That’s a funding strategy.

3. It’s not your employees’ fault. Here’s a pattern we see in every industry we’ve studied: leaders are getting in the way of their employees’ ability to serve. The point here is that you must build a system where people have the time and space to satisfy customers, where excellence is the predictable outcome of a day on the job. Zappos does this at every turn, from hiring service-focused people to designing jobs they can reliably do well to creating strong incentives to serve with distinction. You won’t find many timers at a Zappos call center, and you won’t see employees trying to manage eight different screens at once, without the information or decision rights to address a caller’s needs. Zappos employees have the tools to get service right.

4. You must manage your customers. Finally, you must also set up your customers to succeed. Service customers can’t just pick up the value you’ve created for them and walk out of the store, the way product customers can. Service clients often need to be very present and active in co-creating that value, which means you must learn how to influence their behavior. If a patient doesn’t take his meds at the prescribed intervals, health will not be restored. If you can’t get an advertising client to clearly articulate her needs, a lot of costly film will end up on the agency floor.

Customers, like employees, need management.

These ideas represent the cornerstones of a successful service model. Ultimately, you must unleash that model in an organizational culture that reinforces it at every turn, but we recommend starting with design – start by applying the Four Truths to your own business. Get the model right, make sure it’s internally consistent and reflects a deep understanding of customers, and then create a robust service culture to support it.

That’s what it takes, it turns out, to deliver great service.

Frances Frei and Anne Morriss are the authors of "Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of your Business" (Harvard Business Review Press).

Email me at bullishonbooks@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @BullishonBooks