Uncommon Service – A Book Review

In our CX Book Review series, we review books about great customer experiences, and the leadership and culture that create them. What books are you looking to read? Would you like us to add them to our list? Let us know!

Uncommon Service by Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei and Anna Morriss, executive founder at The Leadership Consortium, was a book that I wanted to pick up for a variety of reasons. For one, the blurb of the book was intriguing, with the authors promising to tell readers not just why service must become a competitive weapon, (and) not a damage-control function, but also how to do it. Besides, the bright green cover of the book with a multitude of smileys was an immediate eye-catcher. 

When it comes to providing customer service, one of the biggest fears is excessive costs. This book provides numerous examples of how to provide stellar customer service without spending too much. How, you might ask? This is where it gets really interesting. Frei and Morriss make a bold statement.

A company needs to dare to underperform in some areas to be the best in others to overall create a fantastic service experience. 

In other words, deliver on service dimensions that your customers value the most and underperform in areas your customers value the least. 

The authors offer the example of Commerce Bank that executed this to great effect.

Commerce Bank realized that customers valued a bank that would stay open long and offer convenient hours of service. Commerce decided to be that bank. But increased access to customers meant significantly higher expenses. Commerce Bank decided to compensate by offering the lowest interest rates on deposits. It applied a similar strategy in its customer service division as well. 

Hiring an employee with both great aptitude and attitude is difficult. So Commerce Bank decided to prioritize interpersonal skills and enthusiasm over everything else for their customer facing employees. Because of their limited experience or knowledge, these employees weren’t the most adept at cross-selling or in other specialized areas. But the decision to prioritize convenience and better customer interactions over product range and price paid off for Commerce because that was what their customers wanted the most.

Of course, excellent service needs funds. A company can do this in four different ways: make customers pay for it, reduce costs elsewhere, improve services so they cost less, or package some services in such a way that the customer is willing to do it for you. Consider how FedEx approached this. Every call about where a customer’s package was created a financial loss. FedEx decided to fix this by allowing customers to track their packages online. They also proactively sent customers emails and messages informing them where their package was. Thus, their customers got better service at a faster rate and at a much lower cost to the company. 

Another crucial factor in providing uncommon service is employees. Exposing new employees to your company’s culture is just as important as ensuring they are skilled. It’s equally important to ensure that your customers play a role in helping your service to succeed. Starbucks trains its customers in a subtle yet effective way. When a customer says their order in an incorrect way, the server repeats it in the right manner. Thus, the customer as well as those behind them in the line learn to say the order in the correct manner. 

The final step in ensuring great service is multiplying the above factors by culture and scale. When you want to grow your company, you can either do more things, or do more of what you do well. You can succeed in the former case by ensuring that each service you provide somehow benefits the others. In the latter, you need to find the right trade-off between a standardized operation and the quality of service your customer experiences.

To conclude, here are my key takeaways from this book:

  1. Excellent customer service is more than damage control, it can be a fantastic tool to gain customers as well.
  2. You should identify areas that your customers value the most and focus on being amazing in those, even if it means underperforming in other areas.
  3. The next step is funding excellent service. Make your customer pay for it, reduce costs, improve services so they cost less, or package some of your services in such a way that the customer is willing to do it for you.
  4. To empower your employees to provide excellent service, you have to consider four main factors. These are selection, training, the design of the job, and performance.
  5. You need to select your customers to try and achieve a low risk and high reward scenario.
  6. Culture is just as essential as aptitude in your employees. It can unify your company and provide the best service experience possible.
  7. Finally, while scaling, decide whether you’re going to expand the number of services you provide or improve on the size of your main service. Decide your customer service strategy accordingly.

This book is a must-read for companies that are focused on providing uncommon, amazing customer service. Have you read Uncommon Service? Let me know what you thought about the book and what you learned from it.