Service as a Differentiator

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Service quality is one of the most misused concepts in business. You can’t see it or smell it. It is hard to quantify except in hindsight, even though there are real live academic journals about it. If you look at company websites, they will all tell you that theirs is great, of course – often replete with pictures of smiling attractive people with headsets. But in real life, it is often one of the greatest differentiators between companies.

Here is a personal example. Once I purchased a laptop computer, in part because its manufacturer touted its service and replacement policies. This was important to me, given my frequent travel. But in reality, any service issues I had were met by indifference, bad answers, and “Sorry, the part’s out of stock. Dunno when it will be in.”

So in one of the great ironies of my career, I later visited a consulting client on the West Coast – an organization with an excellent service reputation – and discovered that they shared a parking lot with this laptop maker. And one morning I made it a point to come in early and watch everyone come in to work. My client’s employees were engaged and chipper, while the other company’s employees trudged in with their heads down like they were marching off to jail.

Now, back to my original point about service quality. This laptop maker had the same support automation tools as most people. They clearly had CRM systems and interactive voice response queues. And their support policies, at least on paper, were a cut above their competitors. But they couldn’t deliver what they promised. Clearly, at this company, support was a cost to be reduced as much as possible. And soon after they reduced their costs to zero, because they lost market share and exited the market.

So what really creates good service quality? A marriage of the right policies AND the right systems. When I managed a 24/7 tech support center, here were some of the factors that led us to have both near-perfect customer satisfaction scores and near-zero turnover:

  • Our team constantly educated itself. We devoted an average of over three weeks per year to product and skills training, versus an industry average of less than one week.
  • We constantly benchmarked customer experience. From the way people were greeted to the oversight we gave to inbound cases, we were constantly aware and constantly improving.
  • We measured quality first and productivity second. Did you know that service metrics often kill service quality? When an agent is measured for how quickly they resolve call, they will be quick, by golly – even if you get sent packing with bad answers. Our agents were rewarded for keeping customers happy and working as a team, and only coached for performance when it varied far from the norm.
  • We had service standards that met the needs of our customer base. From personal assigned support representatives to 24/7 access, we delivered what a high-end audience in a mission-critical environment needed.
  • We realized that service was delivered by human beings. Which meant that we went out of our way to keep employees happy, whether it was plenty of individual recognition and professional development, or a team hiring strategy that let people have a say in who joined “the club,” or annual best practices workshops where team input led to real policy change.

All of these mechanics – most of which never show up on a company’s website – are why service leaders like Disney, Southwest Airlines or my former employer deliver a very different service experience from their competitors. Making it happen requires planning, execution, and a mindset that steers people away from whatever is cheapest or most expedient in the moment. Above all, it is one of the most powerful and cost-effective business strategies an organization can adopt.


Editor’s Note: Service Objects was founded around many of this author’s service principles. From the expertise of our staff, to our fanaticism to 99.995% uptime, to our 24/7 customer service, we invest in strategies that lead to a tangible difference in customer experience.

Author’s Bio: Rich Gallagher is a former customer support executive and practicing psychotherapist who heads Point of Contact Group, a training and development firm based in Ithaca, NY. He is the author of nine books including two #1 customer service bestsellers, What to Say to a Porcupine and The Customer Service Survival Kit. Visit him at