Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Does your business know HOW to provide uncommon service?

Is service a buzz word tossed around your C-suite like a Nerf football? Or is service something that your business values? If you value service, do all of your employees know how to provide uncommon service? Do you provide training on a regular basis so that your employees know what is expected of them when it comes to providing uncommon service?

In a new book by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, “Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business,” an unusual business model is presented: “Companies must be bad at something in order to be great – companies must choose strategic ways to underperform while fueling a winning service advantage.” Are you willing to make this type of a sacrifice in order to win happy customers who become brand evangelists?

As Frei and Morriss explain, “Here’s what we learned: uncommon service is not born from attitude and effort, but from design choices made in the very blueprints of a business model. It’s easy to throw service into a mission statement and periodically do whatever it takes to make a customer happy. 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.”

According to Frei and Morriss, there are four service truths that act as the foundation for delivering uncommon service:

[1] You can’t be good at everything: How do customers define excellence in your product or service offering?

[2] Someone has to pay for it: How will you get paid for delivering excellence?

[3] It’s not your employees’ fault: How will you prepare your employees to deliver excellence each and every day?

[4] You must manage your customers: How will you get your customers to behave in ways that improve their service experience – without disrupting anyone else’s?

With examples from famous companies and lesser known companies, Frei and Morriss showcase how this challenging business model can propel service into the stratosphere of happy customers. Companies including Apple, Amazon, Southwest Airlines, BBBK, Zappos, JetBlue, and IKEA are some that provide proof that this model works.

Consider Southwest Airlines: The airline’s advantage is low fares. This means that all employees need to pick up the slack and do everything necessary to turn planes around safely and quickly – so no fancy meals, no ambassador class or other special VIP section on the plane for frequent fliers. Everyone is the same on Southwest Airlines, and this suits its customers just fine.

Consider IKEA: you can walk around the store as if it were an amusement park and also spend time at the restaurant. Kids can play in a child-friendly play area with supervision. The company sells build-it-yourself furniture but also creates a unique purchasing experience. But it doesn’t sell furniture that will last a lifetime.

Have you deduced what stands at the core of providing uncommon service? If you were thinking culture, then you’re correct. If you create a culture that centers around the four service truths, your business will excel in ways you never dreamed possible.

Again, in the words of Frei and Morriss, “Culture guides discretionary behavior and picks up where the employee handbook leaves off. Culture tells us how to respond to an unprecedented service request. It tells us whether to risk telling our bosses about our new ideas, and whether to surface or hide problems. Employees make hundreds of decisions on their own every day, and culture is our guide. Culture tells us what to do when the CEO isn't in the room, which is of course most of the time.”

To learn more, visit:

Watch “How Starbucks Trains Customers to Behave” on YouTube:

Follow Anne Morriss on Twitter:

Read more about culture on the Harvard Business Review Blog:

Have you experienced uncommon service? Participate in the survey. Take yourself back to a great service encounter and try to remember what choices you made, what choices the company made, and how you felt along the way.


  1. What a beautifully written post Debbie! Businesses need to undergo a cultural revolution, and revolutions are usually messy in the beginning and face opposition. Hopefully we can fuel the fire and push companies to undergo the culture change.

  2. Thanks for your insightful frame on the book. We're thrilled the ideas resonated, and I love the Nerf football metaphor. In our experience, it really can be that casual in some organizations. A big part of our message, call it the anti-Nerf part, is this: how would your company behave if it approached service as a deadly serious source of competitive advantage?



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