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Culture at 30,000 Feet Above Ground

March 29, 2012, 12:00 AM

What's the Big Idea?

Sometimes you have to be bad in the service of being good, say coauthors and cofounders Frances Frei (a professor at Harvard Business School) and Anne Morriss. To research their book, Uncommon Service: How to Win By Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business, they conducted a study of companies large and small around the world. The number one obstacle that organizations were coming up against time and time again? Trying to be great at everything at once.

It’s a natural instinct to want to over-deliver in every dimension, says Frei, and one that’s perhaps intrinsic to the entrepreneurial spirit. It’s hard to admit you can’t do it all. But being an overachiever won’t help you get where you want to be and it won't help you please other people -- it will just lead to exhausted mediocrity.

Frei and Morris’ advice: rather than trying to do it all, pick one essential thing and do it really well. Take, for example, Apple. When the company was developing the Mac Book Air, the goal was to make a beautiful, lightweight laptop. They understood that if they wanted to make it as thin and light as possible, sacrifices would have to be made when it came to battery life and memory.

What's the Significance?

Even more impressive to Morriss and Frei is a company like Southwest Airlines. The company is in what may be the worst industry of all time -- commercial flight -- which in the course of its history has destroyed more value than it's created, as Frei points out. The climbing fuel prices of the past few decades have certainly taken a toll on the industry, but what's even worse is the nightmarish customer service reputation. Having a flight delayed should not have to be a disaster. 

Southwest Airlines chose to use the "focused entry" strategy, say Morriss and Frei, a timeworn strategy for startups, which means figuring out why customers in the space are currently unsatisfied with whatever service or product they're buying and tailoring your service to meet their needs. Southwest actively fought against the public perception of airliners, focusing on hiring friendly, empathic employees, and arriving and departing on time as often as possible.

What they do not offer is luxury. No meals are served on board, and seating is on a "first come, first serve" basis. They get away with it by being honest. They're as happy to admit what they don't do well as they are to highlight their strengths. "Go onboard a Southwest Airlines flight and ask someone for a full meal," says Frei. "They have no shame, no apology -- they might mock you a little bit in their reply. They understand what they’re optimized to be great at.  They understand what they have to give up in order to deliver on that, and they understand that from the top of the organization all the way down to the bottom."

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


Culture at 30,000 Feet Abov...

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