Service Excellence Defined (and Illustrated)

April 7, 2009

Service excellence can be hard to define — it often falls into the “know it when I see it” category of vague, but important distinctions.  Part of the challenge is the subjectivity of a word like excellence. Not all customers value service attributes in the same way. The intimacy you enjoy with a waiter who asks about your children and remembers how you like your burger may feel intrusive and jarring to me (hypothetically, of course).

I’d like to ground the definition of service excellence in the idea of reliability.  Service excellence is the consistent delivery of a high value/price experience, day after day, year after year, regardless of who happens to be on the front lines of the delivery process. It is the systematic output of a service model that is designed explicitly to produce it.  It is not the typical way we consume good service today, which is when entrepreneurial employees take it upon themselves to meet our needs in spite of the system.

In the spirit of know-it-when-I-see-it, I’m starting a highly subjective, incomplete list of service organizations that have reliably offered me (or people I know) excellent service.  I hope this brings the concept to life a bit. I also hope to learn from you. I would love to hear about other organizations you’d add to this list.

  • Lexus Service Centers – incredible that this level of service is possible and its competitors are choosing not to do it.
  • USAA – very difficult to find an unsatisfied customer
  • Zappos – very difficult to find an unsatisfied customer or employee
  • Wine.com – two-day shipping, scheduled at your convenience (including evenings and weekends), for $49 per year
  • Progressive Insurance – offers differentiated features such as Immediate Response vans and Total Repair
  • Four Seasons – unobtrusive excellence, if you like that sort of thing
  • J. Crew – straightforward excellence in the retail stores (thanks Kristin!)


Think Celebrities in Rehab with the Rest of Us

April 2, 2009

The NYT coverage of Facebook offered another example of a common source of customer tension — not all of your customers want to hang out with each other: 

“People usually spend a lot of time trying to be separate — parents and children are a good example,” says Danah Boyd, a social scientist who has studied social networks and now works in the research department of Microsoft, which has invested in Facebook. “You are already seeing young people sitting there thinking, ‘Why am I hanging out with my mother who is reminiscing with her high school mates?’ You are seeing some reticence with young people that wasn’t there two years ago.”

This is a particular risk for brands that compete on youth and glamour. In the market to feel young and vigorous again, Grandpa shows up at the nightclub and ruins it for everyone.  But the tension between age groups can work both ways, as Build-a-Bear workshops — a highly successful toy service — discovered when the 12-year-old customers stopped playing nicely with the 6-year-olds.  The younger crowd was thrilled to be able to mingle with the older kids, but the older kids were horrified. 

Tiffany’s learned a similar lesson when it tried to serve both mass market and high-end customers. The high-end segment did not necessarily want to spend time with the masses, since it ruined all of the elite fantasies wrapped up in the little, blue box.  

If there is a separate physical location for each segment, this problem is easily solved.  But if a single location attracts multiple segments, then the challenge becomes reducing the antagonism between segments, which typically runs in only one direction (think celebrities in rehab with the rest of us), or tailoring the service away from one segment. The act of actively dissuading customers, often profitable ones, is anathema to most senior management teams. The trouble is, in certain contexts it is essential to maintaining service excellence. Facebook may be one of them. 


The Two Faces of Facebook

March 31, 2009

Facebook is throwing Mom and Dad under the bus. As a recent  NYT article chronicled, many of Facebook’s older users are in open rebellion against the service’s new Twitter-esque functionality that allows customers to broadcast every impulsive thought, feeling and lunch order in a real-time stream of sometimes trivial updates. This works for the kiddos, a generation that’s been putting camcorders in their bedrooms since the early nineties. The rest of us have some dignity:

“The changes just feel very juvenile,” Ms. Rabban says. “It’s just not addressing the needs of my generation and my peers. In my circle, everyone is pretty devastated about it.

Should Facebook care? Not necessarily. The company now has a classic service challenge — diverse customer segments that have outgrown a single service model. Facebook’s younger users value things the older ones find distasteful.  The company had to choose between satisfying one group and annoying the other, or trying some kind of compromise that would frustrate both.  It’s encouraging that Facebook resisted the temptation to do the latter. Most companies end up chasing the dream of making everyone happy, at the cost of a slow slide from excellence to mediocrity in the experience of their most valuable customers.

Ironically, a bit of customer “devastation” may be an encouraging sign. It may mean a company is making a clear strategic bet — in this case, on younger, more tech-savvy users.  Facebook may be able to find a way to graciously serve both segments eventually, but it will have to invest in at least the appearance of different service models.  Short of that, annoying the adults may be a terrific strategy.