BusinessWeek’s cover story this week is called Extreme Customer Service. The title has an aspirational ring to it, and the article celebrates examples of “extreme service,” including a UPS delivery person who is instructed by his president to defy the firm’s six-hour delivery window policy, show up at a customer’s door at precisely the scheduled time (extreme!), and deliver chocolates and dog treats along with the storage unit the customer was anticipating. As the story is written, it’s meant to be a beautiful ending, complete with the delivery person offering to assemble the unit.
Extreme Service Man looks like a hero, but he’s actually a symptom of a serious service problem. Defining his behavior as excellent service is contributing to escalating costs and plummeting satisfaction in almost every service industry. When employees must go “above and beyond” to satisfy customers — a natural impulse in environments where dissatisfaction is rising — it means that something is broken in the service model. And responding with costly, ad-hoc spikes in service quality makes it harder to surface and solve the underlying problem. Serving some clients with excellence, it turns out, increases the likelihood of serving the rest of them with mediocrity.
The goal for service businesses must be reliable excellence. Organizations that deliver truly great service build service models that consistently meet the needs of all clients. They invest in the systematic delivery of outstanding value — and treat Extreme Service Man as a well-meaning menace to the pursuit of excellence.