So Your Service Model Sucks–Here’s 4 Ways To Fix It

We’re increasingly frustrated and disappointed by service. Customers, employees, owners–no one wants to deliver bad service, and no one wants to endure it. But that’s the experience we continue to inflict on each other. Why is that?

So Your Service Model Sucks–Here’s 4 Ways To Fix It


In our experience as economic actors, in industry across industry, we’re increasingly frustrated and disappointed. Customers, employees, owners–no one wants to deliver bad service, and no one wants to endure it. But that’s the experience we continue to inflict on each other.

Why is that?

Here’s what we’ve learned: uncommon service is not born from attitude and effort, but from design choices made in the 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. Outstanding service organizations create offerings, funding strategies, systems, and cultures that set their people up to excel casually.

Our message is simple enough: you can’t be good at everything. In services, trying to do it all brilliantly will lead almost inevitably to mediocrity. Excellence requires sacrifice. To deliver great service on the dimensions that your customers value most, you must underperform on dimensions they value less. This means you must have the stomach to do some things badly.

The concept can seem immoral at first blush. We recently did some work with a major health-care provider. The CEO wasn’t able to join us until the last couple of days. When he arrived, we reviewed what we’d covered, including the link between underperformance and excellence. The CEO immediately pushed back, saying, “I don’t see anything we could afford to be bad at.” He continued, revealing that he saw the idea of lowering the bar on any dimension as dishonorable, particularly in a field like health care. Hands immediately shot up around the room. His team disagreed, and after listening to their ideas for where trade-offs could be made–where resources could be shifted from areas low on the customers’ priority list to areas customers cared more about–the CEO finally backed down. “I get it,” he said. “That’s how we can afford to be great.”

You can’t design a system that is based on the faith that all of your employees will perform heroically, all day, every day, for an indefinite period. For a system to work, excellence must be normalized. And you don’t get to that point by demanding extraordinary sacrifice. You get there by designing a model where the full spectrum of your employees–not just the outstanding ones–will have no choice but to deliver excellence as an everyday routine. You get there by building a system that just doesn’t produce anything else.


Heroism can be a red flag. We know a service-recovery expert who comes in early and stays late every day, picking up the slack and overcoming the obstacles in her company’s service design. As long as she’s around, the company will never confront the serious problems they’ve created for themselves, the money they’re leaving on the table, and the growth opportunities they’re missing–to say nothing of the risk of assuming that this employee will stick around.

Great service, it turns out, is not made possible by running the business harder and faster on the backs of a few extraordinary people. It’s made possible–profitable, sustainable, scalable–by designing a system that sets up everyone to excel.

Once you accept the idea of trade-offs–and break the addiction to service heroes–the inputs into service excellence are much easier to consume. We lay out these inputs in a frame-work we call the four service truths, which are the assumptions behind the basic elements of a successful, high-service model.

These four truths act as the mental cornerstones of a sustainable model for delivering uncommon service:

1. You can’t be good at everything: You must be bad in the service of good. Excellence requires underperforming on the dimensions your customers value least so that you can over-perform on the dimensions your customers value most. Once you choose this path, the decision on where to be good and bad should by driven by deep insight into who your customers are and what they need operationally.

2. Someone has to pay for it: Service excellence must be funded in some way. You can find a palatable way to charge your customers more for it, reduce costs while improving your service experience, or get customers to do some of the work for you. Choosing among these strategies–finding the right funding mechanism for your business–will depend on both industry dynamics (e.g., price sensitivity) and the specific relationship you have with your customers.


3. It’s not your employees’ fault: Your people matter, but not because they’re the make-or-break input on delivering uncommon service. What matters more is the way you’ve designed your service model, in particular, the way the model sets up average people to excel as a matter of routine. Rather than creating an environment where employees have the time and space to focus on satisfying customers, many service organizations today are actually undermining their people’s ability to serve.

4. You must manage your customers: You must be deliberate about involving your customers in creating–not just consuming–your service experience. In other words, you also need a management plan for your customers. To return to our manufacturing metaphor, the special challenge of service delivery is that your customers routinely wander onto the shop floor–unannounced–and tinker with the assembly line. And yet success isn’t just a matter of keeping them out of trouble. Your customers need to play a productive role on the line itself, and to do so, they need training, guidance, safety goggles–and more.

Leadership, at its core, is about making other people better as a result of your presence–and making sure that the impact lasts in your absence. As a leader, you create the conditions for others (in services, that means employees and customers to perform), and you do what it takes to sustain those conditions, even when you’re not in the room. Designing good systems is part of this “absentee leadership,” but the most powerful tool you have, by far, is culture. Culture not only guides individual decision-making, but also provides the foundation for all other organizational behavior and action. In other words, culture doesn’t just tell you what to do–it shows you how to think.

We see it this way:

Service Excellence = Design × Culture

Each factor in our service-excellence equation is weighted equally, which allows for some wiggle room. A stronger culture can partly make up for a weaker design, and vice versa. But if either one is neglected, you’re stuck. Excellence is definitively beyond your reach.


If your ambition is to grow, our advice is to first get your own equation in order. Get a high level of control over your service design and culture, understand the levers that drive each one, and then use them more strategically. Once you’re in control, you basically have two choices when it comes to getting bigger: do more of what you’re already doing, or do different things. In our worldview, doing more of what you’re already doing means growing the existing service model. Doing different things means building new service models

With either path, you can build an organization that truly reflects your humanity, one that can shamelessly deliver uncommon service.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business. Copyright 2012 Frances Frei and Anne Morriss.

[Image: Sideways Design/Shutterstock]


About the author

Frances Frei is UPS Foundation Professor of Service Management at Harvard Business School. Anne Morriss is the managing director of the Concire Leadership Institute