Executive Insider

How to Elevate Customer Service by Design

Steve Curtin

For years I’ve been asked during Q&A sessions, “Why is customer service so poor?” It’s often posed as a rhetorical question with no answer expected. But I answer it anyway. 

The reason that you and I, as customers, consistently receive indifferent, transactional, or apathetic customer service is because exceptional customer service behaviors are always voluntary. 

Now, there are things employees must do (such as conform to grooming and uniform standards, arrive to work on time, or adhere to cash handling protocols), but providing exceptional service isn’t one of them. You can no more force an employee to provide exceptional customer service than you can coerce a customer to be loyal. It’s unnatural. 

However, there are three things you can do to elevate the quality of the customer service your employees provide, whether they serve paying customers or work behind the scenes supporting those who do. 

  1. Reveal the total job role.
    Every job role consists of three parts—job knowledge, job skills, and job purpose—which are split between two important dimensions: job functions and job essence.

    Job functions are groups of related actions, duties, or tasks an employee performs in a particular job role. This dimension of a job role consists of job knowledge, such as hours of operation, product specifications, pricing, and availability, and job skills. These skills can be technical—such as keyboarding, using point-of-sale software, or programming—or soft skills, such as communication, customer service, or time management.

    Job functions let your employees know what to do and how to do it. They’re mandatory, often transactional, process-focused, and generally expected by customers.

    A manager’s real world of work tends to be defined by the instruments of job function, including job descriptions, checklists, standards, policies, procedures, protocols, quotas, budgets, and utilization reports.

    Job essence, the other dimension of every job role, is how each employee’s actions and behaviors support the organization’s purpose. This dimension consists of job purpose, which is defined as the single highest priority of a job role.

    Job essence communicates why employees do what they do and how they do it. It’s displayed in your employees’ choreographed actions and their voluntary, relational, customer-focused behaviors. These are the unexpected little “extras” that elevate an experience from ordinary to extraordinary, a customer from satisfied to delighted, and an employee from indifferent to engaged.

    An example of job purpose might be “to surprise and delight customers.” A server at a restaurant whose management has stressed that this is the server’s single highest priority is more likely to bring an unexpected amuse-bouche to a table or substitute a coupe glass with a chilled replacement mid-drink to refresh a guest’s Manhattan cocktail.

    When you begin to reflexively think of a job role in terms of its three parts (job knowledge, job skills, and job purpose) and its two dimensions (job functions and job essence), you’ll become attuned to the absence or presence of job essence during your interactions with service providers.

  2. Specify purposeful actions and behaviors.
    Your employees will carry out their job purpose in mandated and rehearsed actions but also in discretionary, often-spontaneous behaviors that come about when employees are purpose-driven and engaged.

    It’s important to distinguish between actions that are required of employees and the voluntary behaviors that, by definition, can’t be mandated. Voluntary behaviors can only be suggested, encouraged, and modeled.

    Actions are things that are executed, typically to achieve an aim. Actions are deliberate steps that, when taken, enhance the level of service and resulting customer experience.

    Take New Jersey, the last bastion of full-service gas stations. When gas station attendants fill customers’ tanks, they could take additional actions to enhance the service experience: they could clean every windshield, check fluid levels, verify tire pressure, and offer customers a coupon for a discounted product or service at a local partner’s business as part of a co-marketing campaign.

    Behaviors are the ways in which a person conducts oneself, especially toward others. Examples of customer service behaviors include being observant, expressing genuine interest, anticipating needs, recalling preferences, displaying a sense of urgency, paying attention to detail, sharing unique knowledge, conveying authentic enthusiasm, and showing respect.

    At a New Jersey gas station, an attendant could boost a customer’s experience by smiling, making eye contact, using the customer’s name, or providing feedback on the condition of wearable parts, such as tires and windshield wiper blades.

  3. Incorporate job essence into every job function
    The key to providing exceptional customer service, reliably over time and by design, rather than inconsistently here and there by chance, is to incorporate job essence (both mandated actions and voluntary behaviors) into every job function.

    Think back to the example of the restaurant server. Melding job essence and function—by serving unexpected amuse-bouche and offering a chilled coupe glass mid-drink—surprised and delighted guests.

    Even the gas station attendant’s actions, most of which might be expected by the customer, can be elevated to an exceptional from routine and transactional based on the attendant’s demeanor, the quality of his uniform, and the alacrity with which he attends to these actions.

    Here’s another example from the professional waitstaff at Sparks Steak House in New York City. On any given night, you’ll witness staff members deftly changing linen tablecloths between dinner and dessert courses without exposing the wooden tabletops underneath them. Throughout the exhibition, plates, silverware, and, importantly, barware never leave the table.

    It’s really quite genius—and it’s an example of operationalizing job essence (a mesmerizing performance) by embedding it into a job function (clearing the table and changing the table linens between courses). It’s a mandatory choreographed action that has been rehearsed, perfected, and incorporated into a standard process.

It’s true that this elegant routine (an action) can be performed by a surly waiter (behavior) who’s ready to get the heck out of there. While the table linens performance can be a requirement of the job role, good behavior, such as smiling, making eye contact, being interested, and caring, is always voluntary. Whether or not these behaviors are practiced depends on the employee involved. 

That’s why the quality of your dining experience often hinges on the server’s section in which you happen to be seated or why your satisfaction with a customer support call center hinges on the representative to whom your call happens to be routed. 

While using recruiting software with predictive analytics will increase the odds of hiring candidates who exhibit desired behaviors, ultimately, the decision to do so rests with the employee. 

Elevate your customer service by design 

The most effective way to elevate customer service quality—and ensure its consistency—is to do so by design. First, reveal the total job role, including job knowledge, job skills, and job purpose. Second, specify purposeful actions and behaviors employees should take, recognizing that actions can be required, but behaviors can only be suggested, encouraged, and modeled. Third, incorporate job essence into every job function. This will enable your staff to deliver exceptional customer service reliably over time, rather than inconsistently by chance.


Written by Steve Curtin.
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Steve Curtin
Steve Curtin is a globally known expert and speaker on customer service management and leadership, ranked fourth by Global Guru in its annual listing of the top 30 customer service experts in the world. He’s the author of the bestselling book Delight Your Customers and The Revelation Conversation: Inspire Greater Employee Engagement by Connecting to Purpose.


Steve Curtin is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with him through LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.