What Are They Really Telling Us When They Say Service Stinks?


Share on LinkedIn

  • “I’ll never go back there; the service is terrible!”
  • “They were able to fix the problem that afternoon; what great service.”
  • “The service here is atrocious; we’ve been here 45 minutes and they haven’t even taken our order yet.”
  • “I didn’t even have to ask; he actually dropped it off at my house—that’s real service.”

When we ask customers to rate our service on the proverbial 10-point scale, how do we interpret an average score of 7.8? Then what do we do about it? Where do we start if we want to improve the score to 8 six months from now?

When you ask your customers to rate your service, do you really know what it is they are rating? There is an obvious need for companies to broaden their view of service as seen through the eyes of their customers. We need a more sophisticated and more complex definition of customer service, one that appreciates the broad-brush way in which customers use the term.

The customer definition of service is an all-encompassing one. “Service” is simplistic shorthand for a much more holistic and complex concept. It refers to speed and accuracy, interactions with systems and procedures, direct dealings with employees, waiting, proactivity, attitude and tone of voice.

The unexpected service doesn’t have to be over-the-top impressive. It may be what the customer refers to as a ‘nice touch.’

Service is like many other concepts that are widely employed and quoted in the customer-focused world in which business operates today. Service is like value and quality in that all three of these concepts that are so central to the practice of customer centricity exist largely in the minds of customers who make a judgment call as to whether they are getting what they want. Such concepts are also multidimensional, comprising many components, each of which has the potential to satisfy and impress or frustrate and anger a customer.

Service exists in the mind of customers at several levels. First, there is the basic provision of the service: getting the core right. This is the easily-measured side of service, dealing with such dimensions as accuracy, speed of service, first-call resolution and wait times. Where service is increasingly delivered via technology, it has become easier to capture this simplistic, functional definition of service. A friend of mine who runs a corporate IT department recently had a critical mail-server crash. Dell had him up and running in four hours. I’m sure Dell measures response time. Airlines measure on-time arrivals and departures. FedEx measures on-time, next-day delivery.

Well served

Second, customers include in their definition of service how well served they are by your employees. When an employee says, “I’ll look after that right away for you,” or anticipates a customer need, she is sending a message that the customer’s business is important. The customer includes in her view of service whether your staff is pleasant, knowledgeable, helpful, responsive and available to serve; how well your employees deliver what the customer is expecting of them.

Third, there is a surprise element to customer service, one that relates to the unexpected. When customers are surprised by the actions of a company, they will rate the quality of service very high. “We don’t have that item in stock, but I’ve located it in our Phoenix store and I’ll have it flown in for you overnight. No, there’ll be no extra charge.” That’s impressive! That employee went the extra mile.

The unexpected service doesn’t have to be over-the-top impressive. It may be what the customer refers to as a “nice touch.” Such service episodes contribute to an overall positive rating of customer service. They result in what I have referred to in an earlier CustomerThink article as “small wows.”

Getting customer service right at all of these levels is a challenge. It’s not just delivering the predictable but occasionally performing the unpredictable. At some point along the continuum from delivering the basic components of service very well, to creating customer delight through some unexpected service act, we are no longer dealing merely with customer service. We have moved beyond the provision of service to the creation of a service experience, driven largely in my opinion by the presence and actions of employees. The notion of a service experience is inherently more complex than is service, itself. As firms pay increased attention to the service experience, they also need to develop appropriate measurement tools to capture the many individual components that make up the experience. The 10-point scale just won’t cut it, anymore.

Customer-focused companies have, for the most part, dealt with the issue of whether customer satisfaction can be measured with a single question. Most now accept that satisfaction is not only a complex concept, driven by many factors but also is merely a stop on the road toward customer loyalty and genuine relationships.

We need the same kind of thinking to apply to customer service. The quality of service we deliver can not be adequately captured in a single question. How can we possibly know which view of service the customer is rating us on when she gives us an 8 out of 10? We need to use more complex research tools to obtain accurate estimates of how well we are delivering service and the service experience. Then, we need to put flesh on the numbers through qualitative research to find out what we are doing well and where we are failing.

We can’t pretend to understand what customers mean by service unless we ask them.


  1. Mei Lin Fung

    Jim – you have the “ear” and the “eye” for what service should be.

    You are absolutely SPOT ON about asking the customers what they want.

    And of course its critical for us to work out the right things we have to do for customers after we find out what they want.

    That means measuring performance and rewarding behavior that drives customer value improvement. Not Denial of what customers are asking for.

    Right now, we’ve somehow learned to live with distorted performance measures. Its as if we are trying to feel good about our progress in losing weight so we “fix the scales” so that when we get on the weighing machine, we see the number we want to see – not the number that is real.

    This is spelled D E N I A L

    Let’s calibrate our performance measures so that we truly measure the things the customers care about. And when we get on the scales and don’t like what we see, let’s work out what we need to do to move the needle to where it should be.

    Spelt: R E S P O N D I N G T O O U R C U S T O M E R S

    Well your article hit a nerve for me as I had just finished my blog on performing for customers:


    Thanks Jim for your latest nugget of Clear Sighted, Well Spoken wisdom that we have come to rely upon from you, the Master of Relationships.

  2. Jim:
    This article covers every touch point in this challenge called customer service. Interestingly enough, IMHO the entire article can be summed up in the last sentence: We can’t pretend to know what customers mean by service until we ask them.

  3. Thank you both.

    I am continually dismayed by companies who rar elytalk with their customers, or who administer predictable surveys that get at the superficial aspects of customer service and satisfaction that Mei Lin refers to. I too have seen situations where companies deliberately measure the simplistic aspects of service because they are the most easily understood and are the things to which managers’ performance bonuses are linked.

    But, I think there are two important points to be made in connection with this discussion. Customers’ perception of what makes for good or poor service is not a simple thing at all. In fact, it is quite complex as the definition of service will be different across customers and situations. Therefore, we need an appropriately complex measure of service quality if we are going to want to track how well we are doing.

    Second, before we measure, we need to find out just how customers view service and what components make up their definition. This is where talking with customers comes in, so as to gain that insight. But, don’t ask them what service they want from your company, because you will find that the customers’ expectations are not all that high. Ask them instead where they get great service now and who is providing it. That way, you can learn from the best service providers, regardless of what industry they are in.

    Jim Barnes

  4. Jim

    As long as the firm can wow its customers, does it really matter whether it is a big wow or small?

    From small beginning comes big finish. Firms who want to win should make little things count.

    Daryl Choy, the founder of Touchpoint eXperience Management, helps firms make a difference at every touchpoint. Choy can be reached at wisdomboom.blogspot.com.

  5. Small Business Marketing

    What is your definition of touchpoint? What is the relationship between customer service and touchpoint in your opinion?

    Daryl Choy, the founder of Touchpoint eXperience Management, helps firms make a difference at every touchpoint. Choy can be reached at wisdomboom.blogspot.com.

  6. Be it small or big business, the relationship remain the same.
    Today with the virtual internet world, the amount of touchpoints related to customer service just increases.
    Each business needs to analyze carefully its service and the respective touchpoints. By asking and talking to your customers, you can find out which points have the greatest impact in creating their perception of a good service. From that list you will yet have to pick those to which you can really make changes to. It’s going to be a compromise especially in small business as you perhaps cannot afford more than that in the beginning. FInally, should you want to profile in your market or differentiate from the competition, you might select the key touch points in a different manner.

  7. Jim-

    I liked your article. In doing this type of research for 35 years, I think customers know poor service when they receive it, even if they have trouble describing it! From what I have heard, exceptional customer service is as much about attitude as it is about anything. For example, the Wal-Mart employee who drops whatever he/she is doing to take you to the area of the store you are asking about and proceeds to answer your question or find someone who can – that’s exceptional. The employer (with training) and the employee (with sincere interest) in this case view the interaction as an opportunity rather than a hassle.


    -Chris Stiehl


Please use comments to add value to the discussion. Maximum one link to an educational blog post or article. We will NOT PUBLISH brief comments like "good post," comments that mainly promote links, or comments with links to companies, products, or services.

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here