Why You Need Danger to Be Great at Service


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It was a Monday afternoon, and droves of hikers were ascending San Diego’s Cowles Mountain. 

It’s one of the most popular hikes in town. You’re rewarded with sweeping views of San Diego, the mountains, the ocean, and even Tijuana after a moderately steep 1.5 mile trek.

There are some drawbacks. The trail is dusty and worn from constant use. The beauty at the top is a little marred by the crowds. Loud conversations and even louder music can pierce the serenity. (Seriously, who brings music on a hike?!)

One peak and another 1.25 miles from Cowles stands Pyles. That’s where I sat in blissful silence, soaking in the same view.

Fear was the only reason I had the entire trail to myself.

It’s this same fear that causes so many customer service leaders to follow the crowd. It feels safe to do what everyone else is doing. 

Their reward is getting stuck on average.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Fear Leads to Average

The American Customer Satisfaction Index currently stands at 77 on a 0-100 scale.

What does it take to be at 77? Probably a few things:

  • A decent product or service
  • Reasonably competent management
  • A customer service operation that follows standard practices

The challenge is there’s nothing distinctive about average. A 77 won’t set you apart from the competition. Your company won’t be able to leverage the awesome power of word of mouth marketing. 

So why not do more? Why not truly be different?

The answer is fear. In my experience, executives typically make decisions about customer service based on two big fears. 

The first is money. Spending money is understandably scary. It’s even scarier when the return is uncertain. While there are a number of ways to calculate the financial impact of customer service, it can be difficult. 

Which leads to the second fear, doing something stupid. Executives repeatedly turn to benchmarks for help making uncertain decisions. The rationale is it’s harder to criticize something if everyone else is doing it.

The problem, of course, with following benchmarks is it inevitably leads to average.

How Elite Service Leaders Embrace Danger

The best customer service champions take calculated risks.

They aren’t reckless. These leaders simply understand that rising above average means doing something different. The wisdom of the crowd will only take you so far.

I heard this consistent theme when I interviewed people for The Service Culture Handbook. Rather than following the crowds, elite service leaders established a clear picture of success and continuously took calculated steps to get there.

Here are just a few examples of things that customer-focused leaders do differently than the average leader:

  • They constantly focus on culture, over a long period of time.
  • They use data to confront tough realities, and find ways to improve.
  • They take time to hire and train people the right way.
  • They invest in making it easier for employees to serve.
  • They develop empathy by taking time to talk directly to customers.

I imagine none of these items seem particularly revolutionary. The tough part is making all of them part of your day as a leader. The average leader merely pays lip service to these actions. The elite leader obsesses over them.

Which brings me back to my hike.

To get to Pyles, you must first hike Cowles. This means your hike will take longer. Some people are content with only going as far as the rest of the crowd, just like in service.

The trail to Pyles is well-marked. There’s a sign at the top of Cowles. It’s on the large trail map posted at the foot of the Cowles trail. People can see the trail but don’t venture farther because they don’t see other people doing it, just like in service.

Action Item

Set a course. Do something you know is right and stick to it. Here are some ideas if you aren’t sure where to start.

It can be scary to go it alone. It’s also exhilarating.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. Enjoyed the post. The most stakeholder-centric companies know that, where customers (and employees) are concerned, good enough is never good enough. As a barometer,the ACSI is largely about transactional performance, and it tends to move up or down at a glacier-like rate. Leading organizations trail blaze on a more rigorous, disciplined path – building relationships, developing proactive processes, and building value delivery into their cultural DNA. Often this is the road not taken, and that makes all the difference. They claim the high ground with customers, and it’s quieter up there.

  2. Hi Jeff: I suspect that some people are reticent to explore new business initiatives or take new trails out of knock-kneed fear. But I’ve learned that there are limits to slapping a ‘fearful’ on someone.

    In business, as on a trail, some people are content/satisfied/at peace with where they are. As a human decision maker, I cannot readily judge a person’s motivations for choosing A over B, and most important, I cannot judge his or her rationality and common sense. Saying that someone is fearful dismisses any notion that their choice might be completely sensible, and well-reasoned.

    As a risk manager, I’ve worked with executives grappling with a constellation of uncertainties. What do we change? What do we start doing that we’re not doing now? What do we keep doing? What do we stop doing? In many instances, ‘good enough’ is on the table as a viable business alternative. ‘Good enough’ doesn’t mean ‘good enough’ forever, just for the current decision horizon. As always, the forces of change exert pressure on executives to constantly re-evaluate priorities.

    Since you are a customer service practitioner, it’s understandable and expected that you would view impeccable customer service as a strategic priority for companies. In many instances, it is – or it should be. But championing CX, or any other initiative for that matter, requires situational awareness. If a company decides that the status quo for something is momentarily good enough, that choice might not be attributable to fear, but instead, a result of clearheaded thinking. It makes no difference whether in hindsight, the choice was considered good or bad.

    My main suggestion is to acknowledge that the possibility exists that business decision makers are not necessarily fearful, but rational, and circumspect. And that in many instances, ‘good enough’ can be the right choice.

  3. Hi Andrew! It seems like we agree more than you think. In no way does my post suggest that fear is the *only* reason. For example, one of my final lines in the post is the very encouragement you suggest, “Do something you know is right and stick to it.”

    So, while external research and my own studies show that fear is a primary motivator for executive decision-making, this isn’t an absolute for all leaders.

  4. @Michael, you’ve hit the nail on the head with your comment that leading companies follow a rigorous and disciplined path. My research suggests this is one of the biggest differences between elite customer-centric organizations and the rest of the pack.

  5. Hi Jeff: thanks for your response. This is an interesting question: how ‘fear’ is defined for research purposes. Without a crisp partition around what, exactly, fear is from a research perspective, couldn’t many (most?) corporate decisions be chalked up to fear?

    Anecdotally, decisions based on fear – or at least, what I consider fear – haven’t been prevalent in my experience working with executive decision makers. If a CFO says, ‘We want to mitigate the risk of . . .’ is that an expression of fear? or an understanding about the quantification of uncertainty?

  6. Andrew, I’m using the term fear just as it’s defined. As in, to be afraid. So yes, your example of a CFO wanting to mitigate risk is an example of acting primarily out of fear.

    Mitigating risk isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The challenge is businesses often become very limited when fear is the primary driver. Here’s another post from Jeremy Watkin that describes a situation where one company focuses on customers while another customer focuses on cost avoidance (at the CFO’s insistence).


    If you really want to dive into the psychology behind fear, here’s a brief overview of Solomon Asch’s conformity experiment. It’s a classic example of people doing something they know in their gut isn’t right due to fear:

  7. Andrew, fear is often an impediment that most people – let alone businesses – are loathe to accept. However, fear of taking a first step in ANY new venture adds spice to any sort of endeavor, making success all the more sweet when you achieve it!
    One of the biggest risk-takers I can think of was Walt Disney. He had so many ideas and dreams and when he was told they couldn’t be accomplished, he went ahead and tried them anyway – most of which he was able to complete successfully. Disneyland itself was labelled “Walt’s Folly”, yet he has the overwhelming desire to provide a magical place for parents and children to spend wonderful times together. I say “Thank you, Walt!” for being such a risk taker! The world is certainly a bit happier because of folks like Walt, who meet the challenge, investigate the ways to reach the goal, and then go for it!

  8. I think we might be talking past one another, so I will clarify my earlier comments. My point is: absent any parsing of what fear is other than “being afraid”, my conclusion is that virtually every decision contains fear as a component. Even a decision to exploit an opportunity: “This is an outstanding opportunity, and we need to pursue it now. If not, we’ll be behind the market.” How do you characterize this statement? How do you tease apart ‘opportunity pursuit’ from ‘fear avoidance?’

    My beef is that if fear is as quotidian in decision making as you suggest through your research and your definition, what insight can be derived if there’s no attempt to distinguish one fearful extreme from the other? (e.g. irrational fear versus statistical calculation for risk mitigation).

    Not all fear is alike, but to continue with my beef, since regarding fear, I commonly see the same semantic obfuscation: fear is used pejoratively, in an attempt to prove that somehow, “fear-based” decision making is flawed, or not grounded in rational thought. “Fear is what causes customer service leaders to follow the crowd,” “fear leads to average,” “fear of spending money,” and “fear of doing something stupid.” As I said in my earlier comment, on the rational side of the fear continuum, fear provides a solid foundation for a decision, and isn’t as flaky as many people suggest.

    Understanding buyer motivation is an elusive pursuit, and I don’t know anyone who can rightfully claim to have solved the puzzle. But I know the answer requires more than lumping all fear into the same sack and labeling it bad, flawed, or undesirable. For starters, it’s important to examine how it’s manifest in decision making, to distinguish when it’s useful from when it’s plainly weird and dysfunctional.

  9. Excellent example, Lisa! It’s easy forget about the courage it takes to implement decisions after they turn out so well.


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