How to Create a Service Edge


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Edge. The word comes with a lot of muscle. We use the word synonymously with “advantage.” It can imply the blade is “sharp.” It tells the tale of an unexpected route or the part of the mountain with the best view. It can also mean “eager and impatient.” All of these word pictures characterize remarkable service.

In an era of nanosecond response time, anywhere-anytime availability, and decorate to differentiate, it is “service with an edge” that can be the best route to customer advocacy and competitive advantage. In the words of best-selling author Tom Friedman, “As globalization gives everyone the same information, resources, technology and markets, a society’s particular ability to put those pieces together in the fastest and most innovative manner increasingly separates winners from losers in the global economy.”

…it is “service with an edge” that can be the best route to customer advocacy and competitive advantage

Sound futuristic? Actually, Friedman wrote those words in a New York Times editorial back in 1997! And, while the essence of his message is still very true today, the definition of “edge” over the last thirteen years has gained a lot more…edge! Whether you serve external customers or internal partners, delivering service with an edge can happen in many ways. Below are three of my favorites.

Turn “Castor Oil” into “Champagne”

I would define castor oil as a “foul tasting oil used in the 1950’s to cure whatever ailment a kid claimed he had that would keep him from having to get on the early morning school bus.” My mother believed castor oil was a miracle cure. From a stomach ache to sore legs to ringing ears, a spoon full of castor oil was her “all-purpose” treatment for almost any malady. But, she added a twist. Before she directed, “Open your mouth wide,” she would ask: “What’s the best tasting thing you’ve ever eaten?” For me it was wild blueberries. “Now, remember that great taste.” Thinking about those wild blueberries never altered the flavor but it took the fight out of resisting the “medicine.”

All customers face occasional “foul tasting” aspects of getting service. Airlines have cancelled flights; doctors have emergencies that leave patients stranded or waiting forever; hotels have room keys that occasionally don’t work; and, popular restaurants have longer than normal waits at peak times. Smart service providers find ways to “turn castor oil into champagne” by managing their customers’ experiences to “think about blueberries.”

When my business partner and I exited the Hertz courtesy van at the Hartford airport, the strong below-freezing winter wind bit hard. But, the Hertz attendant had a warm smile and an eager-to-help attitude. “This is way too cold!” one of us commented. She giggled. “Now, you guys know that up here in Hartford we do weather as entertainment!” Ten miles down the road we were still laughing at her unexpected champagne comment. Service edge happens when we make service maladies seem more pleasant to those we serve? Service edge is remembered when service hiccups are managed by someone quick to deliver charm, optimism and joy.

Be Boldly Honest

The Delta regional jet was packed. As the flight backed away from the gate, the flight attendant began her ritualistic safety spiel about seatbelts, sudden turbulence and smoking no no’s. She ended by saying, “The flying time to Grand Rapids will be two hours…no, it will be an hour and a half…no, actually, I don’t know.” The cabin erupted with laughter and applause.

What jolted the half-asleep plane full of passengers into cheering? Unscripted, raw honesty! We all loved her confident authenticity!

We grow up hearing that “honesty is the best policy.” But as adults we hear half-truths portrayed as honesty. Politicians keep secret the number of paramilitary civilians fighting in a troubled spot to disguise the true size of the military engagement–a number the public would not tolerate. The super low price loudly advertised comes with fine print describing a rebate that can only claimed with a pound of paper work. And, when we hear the radio ad end with a super-fast talking guy rattling off all the disclaimers and exceptions, we know we are not hearing complete honesty.

Customers love honesty. It gives them an edge. It does not mean we abandon diplomacy, tact or compassion. Bold honesty includes being real and forthright. Honesty shortens the distance between people. It frees customers from anxiety and caution. It triggers a connection that encourages customers to be quicker to forgive, more tolerant of error, and much more accepting of, “Actually, I don’t know. Honesty is not a “best policy.” Honesty is a “best practice.”

And, Put a Cherry on Top

The winter weather was the type that drives you indoors on a Saturday afternoon. It had been a hard travel week and I needed some unwind time; perfect conditions for two back-to-back Academy Award winning best picture movies I had missed. The first was the 1995 winner—Braveheart; and the second was the 1996 winner–The English Patient.

My order of movie viewing was a big mistake. I only watched 2/3rds of the second movie. Now, before you play the “Guy Movie” card, you should know that I actually prefer movies with more plot and less gore. But, Braveheart was so heart-pounding edgy that The English Patient seemed plain vanilla by contrast. The first movie made me ready to go out in the front yard and charge something; the second made me ready for bed. If your customer service was a movie, what movie would it be?

Customers today long for Braveheart edgy. They want sparkly and glittery with a cherry on top. And, when they get edgy, every other service provider is compared to that memorable experience. So, how can you awaken all your customer’s senses? How can you decorate your customer’s experience in a way that makes it exciting, original, fun, entertaining, unusual, special, different, amazing, or any other descriptor that can take your customer’s breath away? What does the customer service you deliver smell like or taste like?

Edgy service is service with soul, animation and a zeal to contribute.

My dry cleaner gives customers a chocolate candy kiss when they pick up their clothes. My car dealership puts an ice cold bottle of water in the cup holder right before I pick it up after the car after any service. Our mail delivery person leaves a little valentine like the ones you got in grade school. My favorite hotel’s lobby smells wonderfully different than street smell just on the other side of the revolving front door. My wife’s manicurist not only escorts her to her car and opens her car door; she starts the car’s ignition! Edgy service is “over the top” without being “in your face.” Service with edge is not complicated; it just takes imagination and effort.

Service with edge is service with passion. The word “passion” dissected is really three words: Pass, I and On–passing on to another the very best of who you are. Philosopher Rollo May wrote: “There is an energy field between all humans and when we reach out in passion it is met with an answering passion and changes that relationship forever.” Edgy service is service with soul, animation and a zeal to contribute. And, when it comes laced with humility and humanity, it signals to customers that they are uniquely valued. Take the well-worn, ho-hum, business-as-usual out of the manner you serve and give your customers an edge.

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group ( and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.


  1. What you are describing in this great post are people (specifically front line employees) with a service edge, rather than service experiences with an edge.

    Services can gain their edge from unique processes, physical evidence of the experience, or any number of other service aspects,

    Still, people are fundamental to where exceptional service experiences start – as you point out in your examples. To the customer, they are concurrently the face of the organization, the service itself, and the marketers.

    For this reason, service businesses that want to gain an edge focus on the best people practices – hiring for service orientation, developing them to deliver service quality, providing them with enabling process support and working to retain the very best “people with service edge”.

    The spontaneous great service you describe is very difficult to make standard procedure, but you enable it through hiring front line service providers that have that “edge” and supporting them to develop and display it.


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