Average Customer Service | Dodgeball Pic

Why Average Customer Service is the Norm — And Always Will Be

The original title of this post was Is Bad Customer Service the Norm? It is a catchy title — better than my current one — however, there is only one problem with it:

It isn’t true.

My original inspiration for the piece came from a January blog post by Harley Manning over at Forrester summarizing the results of Forrester’s Annual Customer Experience Index (CxPi) Survey. In the summary, Manning says:


“So what did we find this year?

First, we saw that customer experience ranges from just “okay” to “very poor” for almost two-thirds of the brands in our study. We place the cut-off point between “okay” and the next highest rating (“good”) at 75 points on our 100-point scale. This year, 65% of the 154 brands in our report didn’t make it over that 75-point hurdle. In all, 35% of scores fell into the undifferentiated “okay” range from 65 to 74 points — our most heavily populated bracket and not a good place to be if you want your brand to stand out from competitors.

Digging a little deeper, we saw that only 6% of firms ended up in the “excellent” category by earning a score of 85 points or higher, down from 10% of the brands in last year’s report.”


At first blush, the passage above seems to intimate that bad customer service is the norm.  By lumping the bad and the okay together and by stating that 65% of the brands didn’t make it to “good,” it frames the conclusion that the majority are not good, i.e. they’re bad.

However, if we dig deeper, we see that 35% actually registered as “okay,” which means the breakdown really looks like this.


Average Customer Service Graph

In fact, while we certainly don’t have the data to prove this* (stat geeks, see note below), it is not hard to imagine that the state of customer service falls into something close to the ever-familiar shape of the standard normal distribution.


Average Customer Service - Standard Normal Distribution

Now, while my intention is not to perform a detailed dissection of a general synopsis, I do wish to use it as a springboard for a more basic argument.  And that argument is…


Average service is the norm — that’s why it’s average.


The Revolution Will Move the Middle

My buddies at The DiJulius Group have a great tag line that says: Changing the World by Creating a Customer Service Revolution. It is a vision I believe in and wholeheartedly support. To me, it represents a desire to make every experience more pleasant for the consumer and to make business in general a more human, and humane, activity.

If a customer service revolution can succeed on a large scale, it will inevitably improve the experience for everyone and make the world of commerce a better place. For there is an absolute aspect to customer service, and it is based on human relations. For example, when the definition of “very poor” service is no longer being outright ignored by a salesperson but just being half-heartedly attended to, that is an absolute improvement. Everyone is better for it.

However, there is a relative aspect to this change as well. Once the needle has moved for very poor service, it will have moved for all service. The old good is now the new average, and smart companies will have to improve even further to be considered very good or excellent.


Average Customer Service Is Here to Stay, So Be Better Than Average

Of course, many bemoan the state of service today. When people say bad service is the the norm, they basically mean that the average has moved backwards. That the standard they remember from days of yore is no more. That today’s average is yesterday’s poor.

However, this approach is a dangerous way to view customer service.

Average Customer Service | Dodgeball Pic

Because average only wins in the movies.

Sure, a general deterioration in service can be a source of competitive advantage for companies with a defined service mission. But this does not mean we should rest on our laurels. In customer service, world class organizations never strive for average or even good. Excellence is always the goal, regardless of where “average” might be.

Why is this important? First, this discussion is occurring at the broadest of levels. Your industry might be super competitive. Your pricing might set expectations of superior service. Customer service perceptions are inherently relative to context.

Second, the average could always move to the positive. In fact, based on a number of societal and economic trends, I believe that the definition of average service will improve over the coming decade. Companies that are not continuously striving for an ever-greater definition of service excellence will eventually find themselves closer to average.

And to quote Mr. Manning, average is “not a good place to be.”


Has customer service gotten better or worse in your lifetime? Do you think yesterday’s average service is today’s poor service?


*Statistical note. This post attempts to make a broader point about the bad customer service is the norm nowadays meme. Forrester’s synopsis, and the way they framed the conclusions, is used as a basis for discussion. I do not have access to Forrester’s data nor the details of the CxPi calculation. Also, I understand that jumping from the data snippets I do have to a standard normal distribution is not methodologically sound. In this post, the stats are merely a launching pad for a more general point about the perception of average and what that means in the field.


By Adam Toporek. Adam Toporek is an internationally recognized customer service expert, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. He is the author of Be Your Customer's Hero: Real-World Tips & Techniques for the Service Front Lines (2015), as well as the founder of the popular Customers That Stick® blog and co-host of the Crack the Customer Code podcast.

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