Service Standards vs Service Excellence

“Once we set our service standards we’ll start growing.” I overheard this comment between two business people on an airplane recently. And I wondered, is this really the best strategy for growth?

Organizations often work to establish standards for common service transactions. While specific standards for service performance can be useful they can also be counter-productive, because setting and achieving service standards is not the same as achieving service excellence. Let’s consider the importance of each, and the difference.

Service standards are applicable to many jobs. Customer service reps, bank branch employees, retail salespeople, call center staff and distribution and delivery functions all benefit from clear standards for service. Standards are also commonly applied to technical support roles and shared services.

And there are certainly good reasons to establish service standards. They provide staff with a clear set of guidelines for delivering predictable levels service. For example, establishing expected follow-up time and communications format when an IT department responds to a technical support call. In such cases, standards provide a useful benchmark, especially for new employees learning how to do the job.

Standards can also support your brand. They help deliver consistency in brand identity across multiple customer transactions. Something as simple as always giving your name, the company name, and saying “How may I help you?” at the beginning of call, or “Is there any other assistance I can provide?” at the end of a call, can offer support to the company-wide brand value of “Customer Focus.”

But service standards can also be too rigid, or too scripted, and inadvertently degrade a service experience or cause damage to a service brand. For example, one call center manager shared with me that one of their required service standards was to use each customer’s name three times on every call. Imagine every employee trying to squeeze your name into the conversation three times on every call, including simple inquiries. The standard is too rigid. The actual experience becomes artificial and customers can see and hear right through it. We know that someone is just going through the motions, following the standard, and not really giving us great service.

Customers would rather hear an empathetic tone of voice, or be asked an understanding question, than hear their name robotically repeated three times. A better guideline would is: “Use the customer’s name at least once and personalize the conversation.”

The even bigger danger is seeing “service standards” as the primary key to achieving “service excellence.” Bringing everyone to a pre-set standard and then assuming that service will be excellent leaves little room to adapt to customers’ individual situations. Inadvertently, standards can drive service providers to deliver the minimum actions instead of sparking their imagination to think “What can I do to delight this customer? What else could I do to serve them?”

At UP! Your Service we say: “Service is taking action to create value for someone else.” Excellence in service is not taking a prescribed set of actions. Rather, service excellence is taking the next right action to create new value, better value, or more than expected value for someone else; an internal colleague or an external customer. Service excellence is the commitment – not merely to predictable standards – but to continuously stepping up. And for my seatmates on the airplane, this passion for perpetual service improvement is the key the business growth.

Here then is the critical balance. Service standards are an important component for process quality and efficiency, while service excellence is a measure of the actual customer experience.

We do need to follow essential steps and provide information during a service transaction. But it is possible to tick all the boxes on a checklist and deliver a horrible service experience! What we really need to do – if we wish to gain loyalty, win advocates, and achieve business growth – is create experiences for customers they genuinely appreciate and value. And if everyone is focused only or even primarily on the checklist, you will miss countless opportunities to provide genuinely appreciated service.

Consider this example. On a flight recently I was held at the airplane door for an attendant to personally seat me. But that attendant was delayed helping an earlier passenger. In an attempt to meet the standard of “personally seat each premium level flyer,” this standard process created the opposite effect and frustrated me at the doorway. I would have happily seated myself and been greeted a bit later by the flight attendant.

Service standards have their place, and we are not advising you to ignore them. But standards are tools to deliver service, and meeting those standards is not the definition of excellence in service.

Here are some tips for using Service Standards and for achieving Service Excellence.

Service Standards:

  1. First and foremost, create standards as a guide to orient people to a job, not as the definition of their job.
  2. When you create standards, get input from real customers. What is their expectation? What do they desire?
  3. Standards in your industry may differ from those in another. Don’t simply borrow standards from other companies.
  4. Set minimum standards only on very key critical steps in a service process.
  5. Don’t make standards too complex or inflexible. Pick only the most valuable measures of time, accuracy, or behavior. Allow employees to adapt to each client’s unique needs.
  6. Review service standards periodically and update or delete as necessary. Customer expectations change over time and your service standards should reflect this.
  7. Communicate the role of standards by having a standard of “exceeding the standard”.

Service Excellence:

  1. Focus your service education on creating a mindset for service excellence. Instead of training to a script, educate your staff to understand what customers and colleagues really value.
  2. Make “experience” the focus of your service brand identity and use this understanding to drive actions and behaviors.
  3. If you conduct service quality audits, evaluate the service experience, not just the list of service standards.
  4. Motivate, recognize, and reward employees, not for meeting standards, but for adding greater value.
  5. Look for “hot spots” where service experience consistently lags. Look beyond the standards. Focus team conversations on what customers’ value and how you can step up to create more and better value. Focus coaching and recognition on these key areas and ideas.
  6. Make “stepping up” the ultimate standard of great service performance.

How do you differentiate between service standards and service excellence?

What tips or ideas can you share with other readers?

5 replies
  1. Alain Najar
    Alain Najar says:

    I love your comment.
    I came accross exactly what you say.
    I leave in Siwtzerland.
    I had a parcel to pick up at the post office but due to time constraints and distance I was not able to go on the giving day to pick up my parcel meaning my parcel would have been sent back to the supplier.
    I called the service center of the Swiss Post explained my problem and asked them if they could call my Post office where I leave and they replied
    “we have procedures and the system is blocked and we can do nothing”.
    This is exactly what you say they are jailed in a system and therefore cannot give service excellence and are not customer centric organisation.
    Best regards

  2. Sander Machado
    Sander Machado says:

    Excellent article!! It´s absolutely true, there is a thin line between both (standard and excellence) only leading companies have understood these concepts. This makes a big difference

  3. Phillip Crockford
    Phillip Crockford says:

    “Necessary but not sufficient” is the phrase that comes to mind. Great set of distinctions Jeff, Thanks.

  4. Romel
    Romel says:

    Standard is a guidelines to meet the basic requirements of being excellent by taking an alternative action to address the current situation.

  5. uday
    uday says:

    Brilliant article. Service standards may keep customers but service Excellence can win them forever !

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