Last month I met a client in Indonesia. We went to lunch at a nearby mall where music poured into the public area from every shop. Just as we passed one storefront, the music stopped and the shopkeeper let out a growl. I looked inside and saw something most of us have not gazed upon for years. The shopkeeper had been changing the music in his boom box and as he pulled out the old cassette, all that thin metallic tape came spilling out in a dusty mess on the floor.
Remember that? But when was the last time you saw it? Do you remember phonograph records that scratched and screeched? Or cracked CDs? Today’s music is skip-free, scratch-free, instant, mobile—and never gathers dust.
Of course, it’s easy to see how advancements in technology are constantly changing our lives. Companies that manufacture products understand they must always be introducing something new, faster, easier, or better to keep their customers engaged. If they don’t, they will be left in the dust when their customers upgrade to the next new product.
Very few companies, however, understand that service is exactly the same—it’s always changing, and your job is to stay ahead of the competition and ahead of the curve.
Here’s what I mean. To start, let’s figure out the level of your current service. Basically it fits into one of these six categories.
• Criminal service is really bad. It’s service that violates even minimum expectations, the kind of service that your customers remember never to use again, and are angry enough to call you and complain about.
• Basic service is disappointing. It’s the point of frustration that can turn into anger—but when it’s over the customer is not disappointed enough to complain. However, he will tell his friends, and will remember not to call you for that kind of service again.
• Expected service is nothing special. It’s the average, the usual, the norm. The customer might come back to you, but only if no better options exist.
• Desired service is what your customers hope for and prefer. They’ll do business with your organization again because you do things for them just the way they like it.
• Surprising service is something special, like an unexpected gift. It gives your customers more than they expected. This makes you an organization that customers enjoy and will come back to again and again.
• Unbelievable service is astonishingly fantastic. This is the level of service your customers can’t forget, the legendary treatment they will tell all their friends about.
Can you see where your service stands today? Great. Now consider this: Each level of service is just like a step in a staircase. Companies that truly understand the power of great service are continuously looking for ways to climb to the next level.
But here’s the rub: Moving up is not another step on a solid staircase; it’s like trying to climb up a down escalator. Each level is consistently sliding downward because your competitors are also working to raise their service. One day you offer surprising service, but the next day everyone in your industry is doing the same thing—oops, you just slipped down to Desired. Wait another day, and oops, you just fell to Expected. The next thing you know, you’re the cassette player of service trying to compete with the iPod (AAPL). Keep your service stepping up, or find yourself lying in the dust.
How can you step up your service? Three ways. First, keep service improvement as a key focus of your business. Don’t just hit the service target; aim for one or two steps higher. Next, ask your customers what else they would like, appreciate, or value. What are you not yet doing that they would love you for if you did?
Finally, benchmark your competition and those outside your industry. What’s new in one arena soon finds its way to others.