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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Obsession is a service virtue.

Businesses have their own central tendency, moving toward the mean of the market they serve.

It makes sense. Capture the largest available market by making your service as good as possible in all aspects. Communicate how good you are at everything, and gain a large enough portion of the ‘everyone’ segment to make you successful.

But a service company representing ‘everything’ can’t represent anything specific, making them average and unmemorable. Presenting its bland, median self and demanding the same of line employees, companies make it impossible to engage customers on beyond a superficial level.

Great service companies, however, are obsessed about one aspect of their business. Maniacally obsessed. To the point that any 'good' businessperson sees their behavior as going too far. What outsiders don’t grasp is that they have chosen a service aspect representing the core of the problem they want to solve for their customers, and focus all their energy on it.

Southwest obsesses about the operational efficiency involved in turning a plane, deploying every available resource to that end – technology, marketing, employees, and even customers. Wisely, they use a casual, fun environment as the mechanism to make all the work you’re doing for them tolerable.

Ritz-Carlton obsesses about the individualization of the service experience.

FedEx obsesses about time, and what it represents in terms of reliability.

Early Starbuck’s was obsessed with the in-store experience of the “American 3rd place”. Late Starbuck’s seems obsessed with quarterly numbers. The interstate is lined with Starbucks off-ramp signs, and you can buy 20 branded products in your local supermarket. The people who wanted the experience long ago ceded the territory to freelancers who don’t want to conduct business from their basements.

Service is intensely personal. It can’t represent an “average of good” and expect to be seen as exceptional by anyone. For it to be meaningful, it has to discriminate. It has to be exceptional for some, and exclude the needs of others.

Great service has to be obsessive.

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