Bruce Merrifield

To compete successfully today, a company must offer not only perfect quality goods with a choice of selection, but also have perfect service preferably guaranteed. Determining what constitutes perfect quality is difficult, but perfect service can vary with the subjective expectations of customers who often state “I know it when I see it.” And, a quality guru statement such as "conformance with standards" isn't much help either.

To get going in a practical, productive way, here are some steps that any business can easily take.

1. Define the number-one, targeted segment of customers to pursue, realizing that each segment is apt to have a slightly different service prescription. If we go to market in one way, but serve multiple segments, we may over-serve some and under-serve others and lose to the competitor who out-focuses us. We may eventually serve multiple segments with flexibly different service formulas, but it is best to take one segment at a time.

2. Go ask five of these target customers two questions: First, “What is good service?” And when that yields little, ask “What kind of frustrating service experiences or policies have you experienced from us or our competitors?” Then, listen closely to their specific, emotional stories, because the opposite experiences will be pieces of the perfect service puzzle.

3. Regardless of the targeted segment, we will find that all customers are looking for at least four universal, measurable standards and four characteristics within the service encounters that they could have with company employees. Beyond these universal service needs, every customer segment is apt to want one or two measurable service needs peculiar to that segment of customer. Call these service niche opportunities, and listen for them carefully.

The four universal measures that everyone is looking for are:

1. Zero errors. The right stuff to the right place.

2. 100 percent on-time-performance. All customers make plans around when the goods/services are to be delivered. Don't let them down.

3. Availability of people to serve and goods to supply. When customers phone in, they don't want the phone to ring for long, to be put on hold, or have a computer answer which makes cost-cutting sense but not customer service sense.

4. Heroic recoveries for mistakes with two measurable dimensions: response time to cure the problem with proper goods or reservice; and how much compensatory credit is offered to offset their hassle cost.

The four characteristics that we all look for when someone serves us are:

1. Genuine tender loving care (TLC), because our money pays the service person’s wages, and we all have an inexhaustible need for positive strokes. We don't want thinly disguised contempt (TDC) for bothering the person or asking a dumb question.

2. Answers to our problems. We prefer to wait for an enthusiastic beginner who cares to hustle and find out, instead of getting a quick answer from a veteran with TDC.

3. Spontaneous and flexible people who can take care of micro-problems and adjustments on the spot instead of smiling robots who say “That isn't my job; you will have to go elsewhere.”

4. Heroic recoveries with a “No problem; it is our fault; so sorry; here is how I (not another department) will solve this now!” approach.

Beyond the universals, look for the service niches. For example, Federal Express created one in the overnight letter business. Domino's offered 30-minute response time for a hot “satisfactory” pizza. Both firms found a niche for speed and reliability. Many firms still look for product niches to fill, shoulder the market development risk, and then get swamped by inexpensive clones. Service niches are far more durable these days than product niches. Listen for these important, segment-specific needs, and fill them.


Give all employees an assignment to read this article and come to scheduled meetings prepared to discuss:

1. Personal experiences as consumers when they received either excellent or poor service using the four measurables and four encounter guidelines to describe the episode.

2. Then, based on their service experiences: Would they go back? Would they suggest to a friend to use the company? How much more would they pay for excellent service? And do they think that your customers feel any different about your service?

3. If they would like to be part of the service excellence solution at your firm, what must the team do to start moving towards being able to offer an unconditional guarantee for at least zero errors and on-time performance.


For most firms "good service" is "no one complained today," which is a disguised disaster. In the restaurant business it is estimated that for every complaint, 19 other customers quietly left perhaps never to come back and to bad-mouth the restaurant's quality to many friends. With equally excellent goods and mediocre service, a firm is forced to compete on price - a losing battle with too many competitors.

If employees can: take the definitions in this article and root them in personal stories that they can remember; discuss the economic and job security/growth implications of retaining appreciative customers who will pay a little more and steer others to the firm; get excited about the goal and selling power of an unconditional guarantee; and buy into wanting to be part of the solution, then the firm can start to measure error rates, on-time performance, etc., and start experimenting with ways to improve.

Bruce Merrifield is president of Merrifield Consulting Group Inc., Chapel Hill, N.C. For more information, call 919-933-7474, e-mail, or visit

Publication date: 05/15/2006