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

December 21, 2011

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.

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.

16 thoughts on “Why Average Customer Service is the Norm — And Always Will Be”

  1. I will counter somewhat, that if you can at least be consistently average, it might not win any raving fans, but it could still place you above many.

    We have customers we pro-actively put a game plan together, jump through hoops, pull strings and still get fired because we didn’t have the lowest price. Yes, there was a breakdown somewhere along the line with relationships or something and maybe they weren’t the ‘ideal’ customer if they still shop you after you doing what you said you were going to do, but it can be frustrating. However, it still should be part of your culture and you shouldn’t change your game plan just because of one or two situations that didn’t quite work out like you planned.

    I still fall back on just take care of the little things very well and it will give you more ‘wow’ opportunities than you can imagine.

    1. My counter to your counter… I would actually say that consistent execution of service delivery is not all that common, and is really, in most case, not reflective of average service at all. While going above and beyond is great, the consistency you mention must underlie the WOW moments or they are not nearly as valuable. Of course, I am speaking somewhat generically across industries, and obviously it could be different in your industry.

      As someone who buys commercial insurance, I can definitely say that it is a price sensitive item. I don’t buy the large policies like you service but I have three different agents all of whom give good service. Since none stand out particularly from the others service-wise, price is more relevant.

      You make a good point about not changing the game plan! I think no matter what the industry, you have to know what your value proposition is and not doubt it because it is not a match for a handful of clients.

  2. Hi Adam,
    I worked 11 years for a company that was known for quality customer service and they retained their customers for many many years. To succeed in business customer service is a must in my opinion.

    I won’t do business with a company who has poor customer service.

    take care….

  3. I think above average customer service is even more important for small businesses. Larger companies can get away with occasional wayward customer service but you are representing the whole of your business if you are a small business owner.

    1. Hi Paul,

      That’s an interesting point! Depending on the competitiveness of the industry, some large companies really can get away with service levels that would sink a small business (U.S. cell phone providers for example). I’ve actually had a post brewing on this topic for a few weeks, so great timing.

      Thanks for stopping by! I look forward to seeing you again.

  4. Pingback: Monthly Mash: Customer Experience Tools and Epic CustServ Fail

  5. Adam,

    This is a great post. It’s amazing how much the little things can push you over the top to help you stand out. Also I discovered your blog from Jayme’s list of 50 + bloggers. I look forward to seeing more of your stuff in the future.

    1. Derek,

      Thanks so much. You’re so right; it really doesn’t take that much to stand out.

      I’ll have to give Jayme a big thank you. Glad to have you here, and I appreciate the comment!

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  7. Hi Adam,

    Nice article! Right on the target.
    The law of average is indeed real and it is true that average customer service will continue to be the norm.

    Great customer service seems to be rarer than a gem.
    No wonder in terms of income, the norm is average income or even negative profit.

    Based on my experience and what I see around me, there is a very high correlation between customer service and company profit.

  8. Thank a lot Adam. By the way, you have a really nice site. It looks good and the contents are really good.

    I am getting hooked to it. 🙂

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