‘Uncommon Service:How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business’ part one

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Uncommon Service:
How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business

By Frances Frei and Anne Morriss
Published by Harvard Business School Press
ISBN: 9781422133316
ebook ISBN: 9781422142363
Copyright © 2012 by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss

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“Are you meeting your customers’ demand for great service–and saving money at the same time?”

If not, you’re at a serious disadvantage–missing out on building a sustainable business that’s profitable, scalable, and capable of delivering excellence every day.

In Uncommon Service, Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei and coauthor Anne Morriss bring a provocative new argument to the table: that companies must dare to be “bad” in order to be great, choosing strategic ways to “underperform” while fueling a winning service advantage.

According to the authors, “uncommon service” is created by specific design choices made in the very blueprint of a business model. And it’s not about making a customer happy; instead, it’s about creating an organization where “all” employees–not just star performers—provide excellent service as a matter of routine. Outstanding service organizations create offerings, funding strategies, systems, and cultures that set their people up to excel “casually.”

Introducing a decidedly fresh view of service, the authors present an organizational design model built on tough choices you must make about four dimensions of your business:

* Your service offering: How do customers define “excellence” in your offering?

* Your service funding mechanism: How will you get paid for delivering excellence?

* Your employee management system: How will you prepare your employees to deliver excellence every day?

* Your customer management system: How will you get your customers to behave in ways that improve their service experience–without disrupting anyone else’s?

Create an organizational culture that reinforces smart decisions around these four dimensions and you’ll achieve a service advantage that rivals can’t hope to copy.

Frei and Morriss illustrate the power of this approach with examples of winning companies from a wide array of industries–including financial services, commercial aviation, health care, and retail. Practical and engaging, Uncommon Service makes a powerful case for a new and systematic approach to customer service as a pathway to unprecedented productivity and profitability.


Frances Frei is UPS Foundation Professor of Service Management at Harvard Business School. As Chair of the MBA Required Curriculum, Frances is also helping to transform the student experience at HBS.

Anne Morriss is the managing director of the Concire Leadership Institute, a consulting firm that helps leaders to identify and overcome performance barriers.




We live and work in a service economy. In 1950, industrial workers represented the single largest employment sector in any developed country. Today, 80 percent of jobs are in service, and service represents 80 percent of the U.S. gross national product.

We cherish good service. In survey after survey, it’s an enormous differentiator in our experience as consumers. Companies that deliver service excellence get a disproportionate share of our income, and our loyalty to them is often difficult to shake. In researching this book, we encountered more than a few people who were brought to tears as they recalled an empathetic insurance provider or an airline experience that made them feel human, despite their screaming infant or lost luggage.

We find deep meaning in the act of serving. We’ve been devising ways to take care of each other—and celebrating the results—since the human story was first documented. Developmental psychologists tell us that a willingness to help strangers is a trait that most people exhibit at as young an age as eighteen months. It’s an almost universal impulse to serve, one that can get crowded out by other instincts, certainly, but if you peel back the layers of what motivates us, more often than not you’ll find a very core ambition to be useful to others.

And yet. Good service is still, for the most part, rare. In our experience as economic actors, in industry across industry, we’re increasingly frustrated and disappointed. Customers, employees, owners—no one wants to deliver bad service, and no one wants to endure it. But that’s the experience we continue to inflict on each other.

Why is that?

This is the question that animates this book—why is service so hard to get right, despite the fact that we’re wired for it? How can we channel the human impulse to serve into greater productivity, greater returns, and greater satisfaction all around?

Here’s what we’ve learned: uncommon service is not born from attitude and effort, but from design choices made in the very blueprints of a business model. It’s easy to throw service into a mission statement and periodically do whatever it takes to make a customer happy. What’s hard is designing a service model that allows average employees—not just the exceptional ones—to produce service excellence as an everyday routine. Outstanding service organizations create offerings, funding strategies, systems, and cultures that set their people up to excel “casually.”

In this book, we try to show you how to do the same thing: how to deliver uncommon service by design. Building any dynamic system means considering inputs and outputs, actions and reactions, and many of the concepts here are rooted in basic engineering principles. But psychology is where we find some of the largest obstacles to excellence. These take the form of denying reality and resisting trade-offs, points that may seem counterintuitive—or at least “counter-comfortable.”

If you walked out on the street today and randomly asked someone to talk about a recent service experience, good or bad, chances are the person would recount a story of deep. disappointment. We know this because we’ve personally developed a bad habit of invading strangers’ personal space with questions like these. That story would probably involve a call center because, as we’ll explain, call centers are designed to be reliably bad. But the story might just as easily be about wandering through department store aisles looking for a clerk to ring up an $8 pair of socks; or waiting for a shipment of parts that came in hopelessly late and hopelessly incomplete; or going through endless cycles with a voice-recognition unit (“For what you don’t want, push or say ‘four'”), trying every numerical option in the hope of getting through to some sympathetic soul who has an incentive to care that your son’s talking Elmo won’t say a word.

And yet we should be living through the Century of Service—so what’s going on?


Our message begins simply enough: you can’t be good at everything. In services, trying to do it all brilliantly will lead almost inevitably to mediocrity. Excellence requires sacrifice. To deliver great service on the dimensions that your customers value most, you must underperform on dimensions they value less. This means youmust have the stomach to do some things “badly.”

The concept can seem immoral at first blush. We recently did some work with a major health-care provider. The CEO wasn’t able to join us until the last couple of days. When he arrived, we reviewed what we’d covered, including the link between underperformance and excellence. The CEO immediately pushed back, saying, “I don’t see anything we could afford to be bad at.” He continued, revealing that he saw the idea of lowering the bar on any dimension as dishonorable, particularly in a field like health care. Hands immediately shot up around the room. His team disagreed, and after listening to their ideas for where trade-offs could be made—where resources could be shifted from areas low on the customers’ priority list to areas customers cared more about—the CEO finally backed down. “I get it,” he said. “That’s how we can afford to be great.”

part two of ‘uncommon Service’ appears here tomorrow; no time to read the daily selections from the Oakville Public Library Business Online Book Club?  try the weekend edition, five days of reading in one easy post and don’t forget, there’s always your local library or…  Buy the Book

About Dawn Montgomery

Dawn Montgomery doesn't believe in boxes. In 2009 she gained access to the hidden job market by connecting with commuters on the GO train, receiving coverage from The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and Hamilton Spectator, plus interviews with Canada AM, CHML 900 and That Channel; however, this was not the first example of her "box?...what box?" thinking. On arrival as an immigrant to Canada the anticipated job and accommodation were no longer available, so she sourced another opportunity and, seven days later, with suitcase of heels and coordinating bags, drove 1804k to the logging and mining community of Ear Falls (pop. 1500) Ontario; it was January, the journey took five days, she stayed two years...the path less travelled is a familiar one!
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