Can Good Process Support Bad Service?


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Have you ever sat at your desk and seriously contemplated what constitutes a service? Yeah, I know. Only until the pain of your chin smashing into the desk snapped you out of it.

So let’s cheat and look up the word "service" in, instead. It says, "Work done for others as an occupation or business." Your occupation or business is performing a service if it works on other folks’ behalf. Folks like customers.

Simple, eh? Boring, too. But appearances deceive, because it’s not that simple. And it’s even less boring. All because of a vexing little problem that’s caused many a company gastric distress.

This "problem" stems from the "doing work" part of the definition of service. Think of it this way. If you’re working on other people’s behalf effectively, almost guaranteed you have your work down to a science, right? That means your work is predictable. And that means it’s measurable (although, who wants some anal-retentive supervisor with a stopwatch standing next to you, while you try to do the right thing by the people on whose behalf you’re working?). And, hey, what happens when you have predictability and measurability together? You have process, in this case, business process. And any six sigmy will tell you, the more predictable and measurable process is, the better it is.

Wait a minute. Weren’t we talking about service?

Never mind. But think about it—what if you don’t have very much predictability or measurability in your work on other people’s behalf? Do you still have process? Sure you do. After all, predictability and measurability are only matters of degree. You just have less effective process. But I have to ask one more question before getting off this jag. Just one more mind bender:

Does good process ensure good service?

And here’s where things get even more muddled—because the answer, believe it or not, is "definitely not."

Poor service
For example, think about airline ground service, or lack thereof. Is the famously poor service because of a lack of process? Or because of bad process? Hell no. What happens on the ground is very predictable and measurable. And we know that the more predictable and measurable process is, the better…don’t we?

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Think Tank: “Is it possible to have good measurable process and good service?” >>

Read about process and service. >>

Now take Microsoft’s technical service for home and small business software users. Is it good service? Since Microsoft outsourced it offshore, it stinks! But is it bad process? Hell no. Totally predictable. Totally measurable. You’re not going to get intelligent answers, and that’s going to happen every time. How much better can things get … from a process standpoint?

So what’s wrong with process—that this very predictable, very measurable, very excellent element delivers stinking, lousy service?

What’s wrong with process is the way we’ve defined it—in manufacturing-based, six sigma-like terms. Straight off the shop floor, where predictability and measurability are everything. Instead of straight out of the service setting, where predictability and measurability are much less than everything—and sometimes nothing.

Consider what makes airline ground service and Microsoft’s technical service so terrible—and ponder on what would make them great.

In airline terms, what would be great is having empowered employees. Employees empowered to tell the truth about delays, empowered to make decisions to accommodate customers, empowered to make exceptions that create long-term win-win situations between company and customers. Empowered like Southwest Airlines employees are, which is why Southwest soars above other airlines in customer satisfaction—the natural outcome of good service. But you know what? All that empowerment, all those exceptions—they really screw up predictability and measurability. Big time.

Now let’s call Microsoft for customer service. With a really tough question. Remember back when to the days when a technician who couldn’t solve a problem was empowered to escalate it to a more senior level—instead of reading the same non-solution out of a manual over and over again. And reflect back on a time (that never was) when a technician solving a problem that turned out to be Microsoft’s, not the customer’s, could waive the service charge? Now we’re cooking. Except that predictability and measurability just went down the toilet.

So where is this all headed? It’s headed toward a fundamental precept about process in service businesses:

The very process qualities that create quality service in a service environment create defects in a manufacturing environment. And the very process qualities that create quality goods in a manufacturing environment create insufferable service in a service environment.


So it’s not right that serving customers effectively means having your work down to a science. Au contraire. In fact, lots of companies have incurred lots of heartburn taking this misguided approach. And if you think I’m just being cute, let me offer you some hard data to support this fact of business life.

My long-time research partner, David Mangen, Ph.D., and I released a comprehensive study, Customers Say What Companies Don’t Want to Hear. And among the many startling findings about how customers want companies to behave is this.

As you’d expect, what customers want most from companies is customer-relevant, quality products. But quite unexpectedly, what they want second-most (and darn near first) is for companies to empower their employees. A whopping 71 percent reported that empowered employees positively and significantly influence their purchase decisions, trailing only product quality at 76.4 percent. Yup. Not sharing customer data across department lines (40.6 percent). Not 360-degree customer data management (33.8 percent). Not online self-service (31.6 percent). Not (ugh) cross-selling (11.4 percent). Not even brand strength (34.5 percent). But empowered employees who can provide excellent service because they’re not wearing a process straight-jacket.

How enlightening.


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