The Customer Service Bar Is Actually Lower Than You Think


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You may think that customer service is improving, but it’s a good bet that most of your customers would disagree. They are out there every day dealing with companies that consistently underperform and disappoint. Sure, there are many really good service providers, but for the most part the customer service bar is quite low.

That screams opportunity for companies that want to stand out from the underperforming crowd. Customers crave attention and even tolerable service. Their expectations are low and generally limited to the functional aspects of service. If companies could only do what they said they would, on time and with a fair degree of accuracy, customers would be satisfied. But, in many cases they are not even getting that.

Customers tell me these days that they are impressed when someone live actually answers the phone, when the guys who are delivering the fridge arrive when they said they would, and when their suitcases tumble onto the luggage carousel, having survived the connection in Chicago. They have become so accustomed to poor service that their expectations have slipped in recent years.

Customers’ expectations — their “wouldn’t it be nice ifs” — are not that high at the moment. These expectations are also typically limited to what I refer to as the functional aspects of service; they would like you to do what you said you would, on time, and with no hassle. From some service providers (and airlines are probably at the top of that list) they aren’t really expecting even that these days, but that’s what they’d like.

Of course, some companies have stepped up to the plate and consistently perform to a very high standard — long-distance couriers like FedEx and UPS come to mind, as do many of the major hotel chains — thereby raising the bar for the rest of us. But, generally, customers are pleasantly surprised when the most basic aspects of service delivery go right.

So, what that really creates is an opportunity staring companies in the face; an opportunity to stand out from the crowd by delivering a level of service that the customer simply isn’t expecting. That requires a customer service strategy that is driven by customer insight and informed by input from front-line employees. They are the best judges of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to dealing with your customers.


  1. nice one… i totally agree with this.
    We should stop focusing on “improving the customer service” and concentrate on reading our manuals / T&Cs and previous communications and at least try and meet 80% of it in 2008… that itself will see a high increase in customer response.

    Customers expect you to land them on the destination airport (along with your baggage) with about acceptable delay of 30-60 minutes. If you can do that time and again, your customers won’t care if the air-hostess smiled or not… now a days, it JUST DOES NOT MATTER !!!

  2. Thank you for your comment, but I don’t agree that delivering basic service is “enough for the time being” or that it “just doesn’t matter.” It really does matter to customers that they get more than they expected — they are genuinely impressed — and it really is important for companies to continually strive to deliver better service than the competition, because that’s where competitive advantage comes from.

    The point I was making is that customers don’t receive exceptional service very often and that this represents a tremendous opportunity for firms to stand out from the crowd by delivering surprisingly good service.

    Jim Barnes

  3. Jim, yjoshi

    From my perspective, as first, a customer consuming services, second, a consultant advising companies how to gain competitive advantage from doing so and third, an interim manager responsible for making service happen, I think that you are both right.

    Jim is right that customers’ expectations are increasing, but their perceptions of what gets delivered is falling; we all have our ‘customer service hell’ stories. Some companies, like Lands’ End for one, excel in delivering the business basics and rightly develop a competitive advantage through their reputation for service excellence. That isn’t always easy for competitors to accept. When Lands’ End started trading in Germany, their ‘100% Satisfaction Guarantee’ resulted in them being taken to court for ‘unfair competition’ by jealous competitors unable or unwilling to match their service excellence. And this being ‘service desert’ Germany, their competitors won. Not to be robbed of their rightful victory, Lands’ End send out cataloques with the ‘100% Satisfaction Guarantee’ inked-out as though censored by an overzealous government censor.

    But yjoshi is also right that being nice and suprising customers with little ‘wow moments’ doesn’t count for much if the basic service is far from customers’ expectations. Although customers do make mental trade-offs between poor service delivery as a whole and acts of kindness by individual service workers, I do not think that they are sufficient to compensate for a rotten service experience. And yjoshi is absolutely right to suggest that companies should concentrate on fixing broken services and service recovery before develping a strategy for random acts of kindness to exasperated customers. During the service hell I experienced recently in Amsterdam Central Station, the kindness shown to me by the lady walking the floor wasn’t anywhere near enough to compensate for an incompetently designed and operated service experience.

    It is time to raise the service bar. As many companies have shown, there is money to be made by giving customers a superior service experience. But it all starts with fixing the business basics.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

  4. I enjoyed the article and exchange above. I think that delivering to rational expectations is a basic, as in the Kano model. Meeting the basic need buys you nothing – no loyalty and no benefit. Not meeting expectations causes a disadvantage and a “bad news” story that is repeated and remembered. So, I disagree that providing decent service can buy you any loyalty or even a memory in the minds of the customer.

    What is required to be remembered is to exceed what is expected or basic, and it really isn’t that hard to do. The employee in a store that drops what they are doing to walk me over to the products in which I expressed an interest has exceeded my expectations, and I will remember. It is about attitude and putting the attitude into practice, both in management (training employees and holding them accountable for the right metrics) and service personnel.

    In my consulting practice, many companies are measuring their service performance inappropriately. For example, a call center that measures how many calls each CSR handles is rewarding employees for call volume, not service. Customers in those centers often feel hurried and leave without complete satisfaction. What do you expect the employee to do, if that is the metric he’s measured by? A better metric would be: how many calls were satisfied on the first try, which many companies do not even measure. For one of my clients, this metric, once implemented, showed that over 40% of the customers had to call back to get their issue resolved. This is poor service caused by a metric imposed by management. They think they are reducing their call queue, but they are trading a calm customer for an annoyed one who is now at the end of the line trying a second time.

    We must know what is expected (often not too tough to figure out) and then exceed that in attitude and practice.


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