Rethinking the Meaning of Service

“There is absolutely no ambiguity about the true meaning of a back blast,” barked the Army sergeant as he cautioned recruits in boot camp to avoid getting behind an anti-tank bazooka (now the M72 LAW) about to be fired. How many things in life have “absolutely no ambiguity about their true meaning”?

It got us thinking about the true meaning of “customer service.”  If the restaurant has salt and paper on your table, is that customer service?  What if they gave you an air-conditioned room in which to dine in the summer?  Would you call the elevator in the office building customer service?  How about the ATM machine?

Some might say yes to all.  They would broad-stroke it all, from condiments on the table to the concierge in a five-star hotel.  But, that covers a lot of ground.  It not only waters down the concept to be practically meaningless, it leaves a lot of room for ambiguity. This vagueness contributes to leaders’ believing their customer service is good when their customers think it is poor.

A Hierarchy of Service

One of the best definitions of customer service we know was posited by writer Jamier Scott: “Customer service is a series of activities designed to enhance the level of customer satisfaction—that is, the feeling that a product or service has met the customer expectation.”  But, even Mr. Scott broad-strokes the meaning with his “activities” label.  What if we put customer service on a continuum or on a hierarchy, much like Abraham Maslow did in his attempt to explain human motivation?  After all, is there not a similarity between worker motivation and customer affinity?

When people ask questions like “Is self-service better than full-service?” it implies either-or thinking that may be missing the point––like asking a senior citizen in a nursing home which is better, a back rub or a visit from the family. Thinking of customer service more as a progression or hierarchy captures the true meaning of customer service.

End result is the basic level of customer service; it involves simply getting the desired effect or outcome.  We often refer to this level as service “air”––since, just like the air we breathe, we take it for granted unless it is absent or threatened.  An airline passenger expects the plane to land safely in the right city on time with luggage in tow.  End result is the given or table stake of customer service.  Much like Maslow’s basic or survival level on his needs hierarchy, if your physiological needs are unmet, nothing else matters.

Ease is the next level in service motivation.  As customers, we expect service to be without hassle.  We require it to be rendered with limited effort on our part.  The more energy one has to exert to get basic service requirements met, the lower the assessment of the experience.  As service-seeking customers, we do not like bureaucracy; we resent wait, forms, rigid rules––any service requirement that has us jump through hoops.  Self-service, done well, makes getting service easier, faster, and simpler.

Engagement is the service version of Maslow’s social or belonging need.  As social people we value service providers who host, support, and collaborate with us to ensure we get what we need, want, and expect.  We enjoy service providers who are friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful.  We prefer a connection that acknowledges us as a person, not a number, consumer, or “next in line.” We value those who show us courtesy and respect.  The journey through service land is much more caring and encouraging when we have a guide and champion to go with us, or at least to ensure our journey is a pleasant one.

Extra reminds us that we are special and important to the service provider.  It is the service level that puts a cherry on top of the experience.   The pinnacle of extra is when the service experience is tailor-made for a particular customer.  As customers, we enjoy service “our way.” When a service provider goes the extra mile to provide value-added, it communicates that we are valued and important.  Extra is the realm of delight, not just satisfaction.  It is the kind of experience that creates a special surprise that yields a story to tell and reason to return.  It turns retention into loyalty.

Exhilaration is as rare in service as self-actualization is in Maslow’s motivation peak in people.  It is a service experience that surfaces the best of who we are as people.  It is enriching and ennobling.  Often laced with generosity, it is the specialty of the service provider that epitomizes the very essence of what it means “to serve.”  Bill Marriott likes to refer to this kind of service as the nobility of service––designed to touch your soul and reawaken your spirit.  Think of exhilaration as service from providers who view serving as a calling with a quest of ensuring the recipients of their efforts are moved by the experience.

Operationalizing the Service Hierarchy

Social psychology pioneer Kurt Lewin wrote, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.”  However, theories on paper offer little more than intellectual entertainment and academic speculation.  Practicality can only result when the theory instructs us in ways that enhance or improve practice.

What can the service hierarchy tell us?  First, it suggests that service is multifaceted.  If a customer wants a cold can of soda and nothing more, a convenient vending machine that keeps its promise is probably sufficient.  However, that same soda with a gourmet meal for a special-occasion dining experience might require delivery by an elegant waiter.  In other words, the manner the customer defines service adequacy varies with time, place, and circumstance.

Service wisdom comes with knowing the requirements and expectations of the target customer and possessing the flexibility to shift when the context changes what the customer desires.  A business hotel on Tuesday can become a destination hotel on the weekend.  Even if the same customer visits mid-week and on the weekend, the Tuesday service-on-the-run business traveler will likely demand a more pampering experience on Saturday, especially if sharing it with a special person.

The service hierarchy also tells us that the higher the level on the hierarchy, the greater the propensity for loyalty.  Getting a fundamental service need met with minimal or zero effort is not the stuff of customer devotion.  We all enjoy the comfort of knowing the lights will come on when we flip the wall switch, but no one races to the phone or computer to tell a friend about the greatness of plain vanilla electric service.   The first two levels on the hierarchy are likely to be only the realm for satisfaction, not loyalty. . . and, certainly not for ardent advocacy.

Loyalty, therefore, begins at engagement––that part of the hierarchy where people as servers (not machines) reside.  Even if partially automated, it is the realm where the guardian of the service covenant lives and remains obviously vigilant over the service encounter.  When things go wrong, solutions to resolving disappointment cannot come from the End Result or Ease level of the hierarchy, but must come from the Engagement level or above.  Extra is engagement done with excellence and generosity; Exhilaration is engagement done with character and soul.

Customers as Partners

Now, for the most important lesson of the service hierarchy.  The purest form of engagement––the one best at restoring the service covenant––is a partnership.

Let’s return to our premise.  Whether the Internet was the cause or simply the enabler of customers’ newfound supremacy is irrelevant.  The fact is that today’s customers, edgy from all that has transpired, now rule!  This has produced anxiety, apprehension and worry on both sides of the service covenant.  The path to service tranquility––peace between server and served––is the restoration and renewal of the service relationship.

Partnership is the model we have selected as the restorative foundation of the renewed service covenant.  Partnership, in its purest form, is a reflection of egalitarianism––collaboration and cooperation sourced from a commitment to transparency, authenticity, and mutuality.  When customers feel like partners––true partners––they not only experience more commitment and ownership (since they are serving with)—but they also make the service provider a part of their village. When service providers act like partners, they demonstrate assertive inclusion, dramatic listening, genuine openness and a deep allegiance to fairness and generosity.

A solid partnership reflects a collection of principles, protocols, and practices that govern and ground how equals co-labor together on one another’s behalf.  Done well, they ensure vigor will remain in the union; properly maintained, they guarantee values will aid the alliance in withstanding adversity and maintaining perseverance in times of challenge.

Partners take care of each other.  When partners make mistakes, they are quick to own the error, agile in correcting it, and driven to rebalance the relationship as they mend the mistake.  Partners do not lie or deceive.  Partners will not act out of greed or self-indulgence.  Most important, partners never take their valued relationship for granted.

The byproduct of a partnership approach to the service relationship is its attraction to apprehensive customers as a place of tranquility.  The outcome of partnership is the return of soul to service.  It is the purest manifestation of a confederation laced in balance and harmony.




About Chip&John

Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and the authors of several best-selling books. Their newest book is "Wired and Dangerous: How Your Customers Have Changed and What to do About it."
This entry was posted in Customer Centric, Customer Expectations, Customer Experience, Customer Relationship, Service Covenant, Wired and Dangerous and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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