Why Is Great Service So Rare?

Every customer dreams of a world where great service is the norm. We lionize customer-friendly brands like Zappos and get weak in the knees when customer service reps actually treat us well. But despite the obvious business advantages, top-quality service remains frustratingly elusive. “Why is it so uncommon in a world where customers value it so highly, employees want to deliver it, managers want to deliver it, and C-level teams say this is our #1 priority?” asks Anne Morriss, co-author (with Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei) of Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business. “Clearly there’s an economic upside to getting it right. So when the incentives are so perfectly aligned, why is it the exception?”

Morriss and Frei have a powerful and surprising answer: our own psychology. “The number one obstacle to excellence may be an emotional one,” says Frei. The reality, in a world of limited resources, is that you have to make trade-offs in order to pursue true excellence – and that means accepting there are some things you’re going to be bad at. In healthcare, for instance, ease of access (such as same-day appointments) is inversely related to status (how prestigious the doctors are). It’s a valid choice for hospitals to serve patients rapidly with less well-known doctors, and it’s also fine to hire the best specialists, who are booked months in advance. But you simply can’t have both. Frei tells them, “’I get it; you want to be great at everything. And how’s that working for you?’ And everyone laughs. We just want to liberate people. It’s a choice, so you choose and work within it.”

Many executives resist at first, says Morriss: “It’s appalling at first blush, the idea that you can deliberately choose to be bad at something. But once you walk through the fire, on the other side is the opportunity to truly excel. Once they realize what they get in return, it’s an energizing moment for people. Suddenly you’re in the game of what’s possible now.”

Customer service also falls short because corporate leaders can’t face up to making hard choices about their employees. “Often employers are designing jobs for the employees they wish they have, not the employees they actually have,” says Frei. “I’d ask, ‘What are the jobs we’re designing, and can we attract and retain people for these jobs?’ If we design jobs for the person you have to pay a gazillion dollars to and we’re not going to pay a gazillion dollars, we have to stop designing jobs that way.”

Finally, companies can improve the service they provide by being disciplined with their customers. “It’s a great impulse to want to meet the needs of all your diverse customers,” says Morris, “and it will ruin your business.” There’s a reason Southwest Airlines, renowned for its customer service, hews strictly to a narrow business model. Says Frei, “Turning yourself into a pretzel [to serve new customers] in the short run will make you worse off in the long run.”

Want to apply Frei and Morriss’ theories to your business? Check out their free Service Design Tool.

What’s the best customer service experience you’ve ever had? And what is your company doing to surprise and delight your customers?

This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on August 1, 2012.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.