Leonard Berry and the eternal pursuit of service excellence

We may be in an era of technological disruption, but the age-old art of delighting customers remains an essential element of business success.

The landscape of customer service is undergoing a massive paradigm shift. But while our tools may evolve and our strategies morph, the core idea doesn’t really change: providing great service to customers. Today, we’re not chasing after new insights or novel approaches; instead, we’re going back to the fundamental building blocks. And few people have dedicated more time and expertise to researching the tenets of service quality than Leonard “Len” Berry.

Len is – and has been for the past four decades – a distinguished Professor of Marketing at Texas A&M University, a senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, and a former president of the American Marketing Association. Over his career, he has penned ten books on marketing and customer service, not to mention a multitude of academic articles and lectures. But today, we’re delving into one book in particular, On Great Service: A Framework for Action, where Len draws on years of field research in service quality to share his approach to elevating customer service.

Sure enough, years after being published, companies boasting about customer centricity still have a hard time turning those values and plans into action. And so, in today’s episode, we sat down with Leonard Berry to talk about On Great Service and his framework for improving service quality.

Here are some of the key takeaways:

  • Successful companies hire individuals whose values align with a customer-centric approach and give them the tools and confidence they need to perform at their best.
  • To be successful, companies need to respect their customers; making them central to their operations, allocating resources based on their needs, and striving to exceed expectations.
  • A successful service strategy involves four key components: reliability, a wow factor, preparedness for recovery in case of failure, and a perception of fairness.
  • Implementing a comprehensive service strategy requires middle leadership buy-in, the right org structure and tech, and a service quality listening system to know what to prioritize.
  • To attain service excellence in an increasingly AI-driven world, it’s key to balance high-tech solutions with high-touch human interactions, where AI complements rather than replaces people.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can follow on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, YouTube or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

New realities, same principles

Liam Geraghty: Hello and welcome to Inside Intercom. I’m Liam Geraghty. Today, we are talking to a legend of marketing and customer service research, Len Berry. He’s a distinguished professor of marketing at Texas A&M University, a senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, a past president of the American Marketing Association, and has written 10 books in all, including Discovering the Soul of Service, Delivering Quality Service, and the book we’re going to focus on today On Great Service: A Framework for Action. Len, you’re very welcome to the show.

Leonard Berry: Thank you, Liam. It’s my pleasure. You bet.

Liam: On Great Service has been the go-to book for so many CS folks over the years because of the insights and the framework it shares. There’s a line in the opening chapter that says, “Great service is rare, but it is not an impossible dream.” What was the inspiration behind writing this book in the first place?

“Some of the challenges are different today, but they’re still imposing great barriers to improvement”

Len: With each of the books that I write, I have a goal for it. It’s just like offering a new product. You need a market, a reason for being, and a specific purpose. In that particular book, my purpose was to write about service quality and implementation. Implementation because there was so much talk, at that point in time, about the importance of quality service, but companies were struggling to actually implement it, make it happen, and go beyond the rhetoric of quality and service. That book was a study of 10 different organizations in the United States, all in different industries and sizes, some private and some public, that had demonstrated, over time, the ability to dramatically improve their quality of service. That was the purpose of the book: how do you make it happen?

Liam: Do you think much has changed since then? I suppose these are still the kinds of problems and challenges businesses are facing today.

Len: Yes, very much so. Some of the challenges are different today, but they’re still imposing great barriers to improvement. For example, today, when it comes to improving service, we have much better technology than when I first wrote that book. We can do marvelous things with technology that we never dreamed about when I wrote On Great Service, but the advances we’ve made in technology have changed our expectations as consumers.

“Convenience is a key pillar of service quality today. Consumers, as a group, do not want to waste their time receiving service”

Our expectations are higher, particularly in terms of convenience and reliability, because technology is supposed to be reliable. Your automatic teller machine is supposed to work. Netflix is supposed to always work and have the movie or the television show we want to watch that they advertise as available.

It’s changed our expectations for reliability, and it’s also changed our expectations for convenience. What used to be fast is now slow. Convenience is a key pillar of service quality today. Consumers, as a group, do not want to waste their time receiving service. So, the challenges are still there, but some of the barriers, realities, and opportunities that existed at the time I wrote On Great Service are quite different today.

Lessons in customer centricity

Liam: Something I find interesting about the book is that you mentioned a variety of companies known for delivering exceptional service, such as Mary Kay Cosmetics and Longo Toyota. How do these really diverse businesses consistently provide great service despite their differences in industry or offerings?

Len: They do a number of things that are critical to quality service performance. These companies, for example, hire well. They hire the person, not just the resumé. Someone may have a good resumé, a good background, a good experience, but they don’t have the right customer-serving values, or they don’t care about the customer. Their motives might be, “How do I make the most money? How do I get the fastest promotion?” Their motives might be quite different than making life better for the customers in the business they’re applying to work for. Hiring for values, not just talent, is something I’ve found in successful companies and organizations. They really do invest in the first rule of executing excellent service, and the first rule of executing excellent service is to hire the right people.

“It’s about making a commitment that the customer is the business; that unless we do a great job with the customer, we don’t really have a long-term business”

These companies also invest in not just hiring the right people, but preparing them to perform well and be successful and giving them the confidence they need to perform the service because, without the confidence, it’s hard to be motivated. We often don’t make the connection between employee self-confidence and employee motivation. But if you think about it, how motivated am I going to be to do something I don’t feel confident in doing? We could all relate to that. So, the more confident we are in doing something, the more motivated we’re going to be in general in doing it. And certainly, the more able we’re going to be in doing it well.

And then, it’s about making a commitment that the customer is the business; that unless we do a great job with the customer, we don’t really have a long-term business. It will diminish over time because we’re continuously disappointing our customers and not meeting their expectations. So, it’s important to make a commitment that the customer is central to what we do, that the customer defines the resource allocations we’re going to make, and embrace the idea that we’re going to meet and better yet, exceed customer expectations every time we interact with and encounter customers who need our service. That’s key, and I found it in all the companies I studied.

“Respecting their presence means responding to it and listening – actually listening – to what the customer has to say”

Another thing I found in all the companies I’ve studied over many years that have been truly successful is their embrace of the concept of respectfulness. Respectfulness to their customers, respectfulness to their employees, and respectfulness to all their stakeholders. The power of respect is underestimated. It’s such a basic concept, and it seems so simple that we don’t remember to bring it up when we’re teaching in business school or having a meeting in our company. The fundamental concept of respect that hopefully we learn when we’re growing up as kids – we need to respect others.

What does respect mean? It means respecting people’s presence. If they come into your store, call you on the phone, or interact with you online, they’re present and asking for help. There’s a reason they’ve come into your store. Respecting their presence means responding to it, listening – actually listening – to what the customer has to say, respecting their time by not needlessly wasting it, respecting their privacy, which is a big issue today, especially with all the technological changes we’ve seen, and respecting their self-esteem. If you’re serving a customer and you roll your eyes when the customer’s making requests, that’s the opposite of respecting the customer’s self-esteem. These basic concepts are central to delivering quality service. A disrespectful service is a bad service.

And finally, and I’ve already mentioned this, saving customers time and effort. I remember in Longo Toyota how quick they were to take care of customers who came in to bring their cars in for repair. They had invested in cars that the customer could drive away while their car was in the shop, cars that the dealership would loan to customers. They had a very good system for getting customers who were maybe on their way to work or had to drop off their car in and out of that dealership in about five to ten minutes, not two hours. And that’s just one piece of their ongoing success.

A timeless blueprint for great service

Liam: The concept of great service seems to go beyond traditional definitions of customer satisfaction. I’m wondering if you could explain the distinction and significance of great service versus merely good service. What are some of the key characteristics that set them apart?

“Good service is service that’s reliable; great service is service that goes beyond reliability to exceed the customer’s expectations and generate unusual grace, respect, kindness, stability, and extra effort”

Len: Good service is service that meets the customer’s expectations. It’s fine, it’s okay, you’ve done what you are supposed to have done. You delivered my mail today. That’s good service. Great service offers the element of pleasant surprise. It offers the wow factor. It exceeds my expectations. It’s something that happens that makes me say, “Wow, they’re good. They really care. This was wonderful.” We use words internally or with others in our word of mouth to describe these kinds of service interactions and service experiences when there’s the element of pleasant surprise. That’s the difference. Good service is service that’s reliable; great service is service that goes beyond reliability to exceed the customer’s expectations and generate unusual grace, respect, kindness, stability, and extra effort. Great service does that, and it does that on an ongoing basis. And a company then generates its reputation for truly being a superior company.

Liam: In On Great Service, you outline a comprehensive framework for implementing great service that’s still useful to businesses today. Could you briefly summarize the key components of that framework and how they work together to create a culture of exceptional service within a business?

Len: So, in this book, the core question was, how do great service companies become great? How do they actually move from a commitment to improving their service to doing it? The book, as I’ve mentioned, is on implementation. How do you implement great service? And like anything else in organizational change, it starts with leadership. One of the keys, in all but the smallest of organizations to great leadership is that great leadership is in the middle of the organization. The so-called middle manager. I prefer the phrase middle leaders because that’s what needs to happen in an organization, with 500 people, 1,000 people, or 500,000 people – virtually everybody works for so-called middle managers. That’s where you need great leadership. Great service leadership is coaching and mentoring and inspiring and role modeling service quality behaviors. Rewarding it, celebrating it, and insisting on it.

Nurturing service leadership starts with that at the top, but very importantly, also in the middle. Another piece of my framework is the importance of building a service quality listening system, an information system. Improving service quality requires knowing what to improve and knowing where to allocate resources. And so, building a listening system that guides resource allocation and decision-making is central. That, too, is part of the framework.

“You need the right leadership and a listening system so you know what customers truly value, where the gaps are in the market, and where you need to invest most to improve the most”

And then all companies need a core strategy around which to build the offering. Your reason for being revolves around what you offer. Service companies need to offer something that provides real, demonstrable value to their target market. In this part of the book entitled “Create a Great Service Strategy”, there are four key points. One is that a service needs to be reliable, which I’ve discussed. It needs to be consistent and dependable. Second, there needs to be this element of service surprise, which I’ve discussed, to exceed customer expectations. Third, companies need to be prepared to recover when the service fails. Because even in the best of companies, mistakes happen, failures occur, and companies need to be able to recover. The reason we call it service recovery is that it means recovering the customer’s confidence. Last but not least, the service strategy has to be fair as perceived by stakeholders, particularly by the customer. So, service reliability, service surprise, service recovery, and service failure are the four component parts of creating a service strategy. You want your service to be all of those things. Reliable with a wow factor, with a recovery component when you fail, and perceived as fair. That’s the front part of the framework.

Then, implementing that framework requires three different component ideas. One is organizing and structuring the organization in the right way to implement that strategy. Another is having the right technology to implement that strategy. And then the third, which we’ve also talked about in general, is having the right people to implement that strategy. So, you need the right leadership and a listening system so you know what customers truly value, where the gaps are in the market, and where you need to invest most to improve the most. Then, you need a service strategy with all these components I’ve mentioned – reliability, surprise, recovery, and fairness. And then, all of that needs to be implemented through structure, technology, and people.

When I write a book, I draw a picture in the first chapter of the book, and then each chapter takes a piece of that picture and develops it. If I can’t draw a picture of what the book is about, to begin with, a framework, a model, or an image to a roadmap to show the readers, “Okay, here are the key points we’re going to make in the book and each chapter is going to take one of these key points and develop it,” I’m not ready to write the book. On page five of On Great Service, there’s this exhibit called “A Framework for Great Service”.

Liam: I love that. Good advice for anyone writing a book as well.

Balancing high-tech with high-touch

Liam: I’d love to hear your thoughts on AI, its impact on customer service, and how businesses can leverage it for the efficiency you spoke about while maintaining the personal touch so often associated with great service.

Len: The issue with AI, and there are many people that know far more about it than I do, is we’re all learning about AI at the same time with a mix of awe and fear. What could this mean in a good way, and what could this mean in a bad way? The main concept for all of us as AI progresses and becomes a bigger and bigger part of our lives in business and in general is that organizational excellence requires a combination of high-touch and high-tech. No matter how good we get at high-tech, no matter how much more advancement we make – and I’m sure there’s a lot more advancement ahead of us – the touch component is just as important in many services, and to some extent, in all services.

“AI may change the role of people in delivering certain services, but it doesn’t diminish their role”

We need to be able to interact with people when we need them, even if we’re heavy technology users in our consumer role. There are certain things people will be able to do better than AI alone. And in some cases, they’ll be able to do better because they’re using AI not as the answer, but as a tool. Just like with other technologies or tools. And so, going into the future, we need to be great in tech if we’re going to be great as an organization, but we also always need to be great in touch. AI may change the role of people in delivering certain services, but it doesn’t diminish their role.

Liam: Well, Len, thank you so much for joining me today. I really enjoyed our conversation.

Len: You are most welcome. My pleasure.

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