Book Review: “Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business”

by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss
c.2012, Harvard Business Review Press

You’ve never had a worse shopping experience in your life.

The store wasn’t even busy that day, but there was nobody on the sales floor. When you finally did spot a human being with a nametag, she was surly and the cashier snarled a sarcastic “thanks” before literally throwing your purchase in a bag and shoving it across the counter.

Shocked, you knew two things for sure: you’ll never shop there again, and you would never allow your employees to behave that way. You know good customer service when you see it, but in the new book “Uncommon Service” by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, you’ll learn how to do it best.

We’ve all been there: standing with our mouths open, utterly stunned by the presence of abysmal customer service. It’s irritating, it’s maddening, and somebody’s losing business over it. So how can you make sure you’re not the one losing?

Frei and Morriss say that the first — and hardest — thing to do is to “have the stomach to do some things badly.” And to achieve that, you must understand The Four Service Truths, the first of which is that you can’t be good at everything.

Yes, indeed, excellence comes at a price. There are certain things about your business that your customers value more than others. What’s not important to them probably shouldn’t be overly important to you.

But you can’t give stellar customer service away for free. Someone has to pay for it, whether you raise prices (the easy way to do it), reduce costs, or you teach your customers to do some of the hard work for you (the fun way to do it). The good news is that the fun way “gets the most attention.”

Though it’s easy to point fingers, you should understand that bad customer service is not the fault of your employees. Your hiring process might be all wrong. Maybe the job is designed poorly or IT tools are overwhelming. Perhaps training is inadequate, or you’re giving employees too many tangible incentives and not enough pride in their jobs.

Finally, know that customer management is important. Give customers some level of involvement. Let them serve themselves. And if all else fails, fire them.

“Uncommon Service” starts out as dry as a museum bone. There were a lot of heavy sighs in my house at the beginning.

But then authors Frances Frei and Anne Morriss started to make things sound fun for both customers and employees, and that’s pretty exciting. Through examples from internet, banking, retail, and service industries, they prove that their Four Truths are real truths and, though there are some dig-in-deep exercises, most of what is suggested is easy to do and will give any business owner more insight to their business.

I liked this book, and I think you will, too, because — hey! — don’t we all know a lot of businesses that badly need a copy of it? To stay certain that you’re not one of them, read this soon because “Uncommon Service” is uncommonly helpful.

Book reviewer Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was 3 and never goes anywhere without a book.