The Edge of Service
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Issue 10 | August 2014

From Brad

Welcome to Issue 10 of The Edge of Service™ Newsletter. You are receiving this new newsletter as a friend or colleague, or because we've connected or interacted on service topics. If you choose, you can unsubscribe by clicking unsubscribe.

I was first to arrive at the conference room of a new client, and had time to meander the perimeter, coffee in hand. I read their vision and mission, posted on one of the walls, and then moved to another to scan some history and pictures from this storied company.

Others soon arrived, each, I learned, with roles related to planning and managing the organization's customer services. This was a meeting to kick off a project that would assess the operation and lead to recommendations on how best to improve effectiveness and customer experience.

As the dozen or so attendees filed in, we found seats and went through the usual introductions and pleasantries. The Senior VP responsible for the project then put a large, neatly bound report on the table. Glances around the room suggested all were familiar with it, and the countenance of the group seemed to drop. "This is one of the reasons you're here," she said, looking my way. "Our company paid a lot for this advice, and implementing it has been..."

"Interesting," said someone to her left, to nervous chuckles.
"Trying," offered another, to nods.
"Character building," smiled another, which brought some laughs and helped break a palpable tension.

The report was produced by a consulting firm hired to conduct a strategic assessment encompassing all of the organization's major functions. It provided dozens (I do mean dozens, and dozens) of recommendations related to customer service alone, purportedly based on "best in class" benchmarks translated into improvement targets. Issues addressed included service level, channel usage, handling time measures, quality metrics, first-contact resolution, budget allocations, and many others.

But there were two underlying problems, the first being that recommendations were presented in relative isolation; like moving the dial on a soundboard, the team had discovered, a change in one area would impact others (often moving them in the wrong direction). The second was the lack of an overall roadmap for implementing the recommendations. This group was at their wits' end, trying to make it all work.

No, benchmarks and standards cannot replace sound decisions.

I hope you enjoy this issue!

Warm Regards,

Brad Cleveland

Beware Others' Benchmarks

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Let me begin with a quick preface. The title is "beware others' benchmarks," not ignore them, or be uniformed of them. Benchmarks are necessary. But to the definition of beware... be on guard, be wary.

Remember in school when you got back graded tests? If the teacher caught you peeking at your neighbor's score or heard you whisper, "Hey, what did you get?" you were likely advised to focus on your performance and disregard others'.

It's a principle worth reemphasizing today. As leaders, we desperately want good information. We want to know where we stand, what customers expect, what we must do to deliver great service, and the changes that will be cost-effective and best meet customer needs. We want facts upon which to base sound decisions.

But could it be that we overemphasize the value of finding out what everyone else is doing? As if there is safety in numbers?

If so, and I'll let you be the judge, it's not hard to understand why. An ever-changing economic and regulatory environment—along with dramatic developments in social, mobile and other new forms of access—has led to shifts in strategy and operational objectives at many organizations. The changes quickly render industry surveys obsolete and leave managers without a sufficient "gut" sense.

Most inquiries I get about industry benchmarks or standards are really a way of asking about the objectives that should be set. Typical questions:

  • What do best-in-class organizations invest in service as a percent of gross margin?
  • What customer communication channels are typical?
  • What first-contact resolution do they achieve?
  • What's a typical handling time? Cost per contact?
  • How do they allocate budget?

But an industry benchmark tells you what others, on average, are doing. In a season when channels are proliferating, mobile and social are changing expectations, and customer sentiment is mixed at best, we need to raise the bar—not lock it where the public perceives it to be now.

I think Seth Godin was onto something when he wrote, "Why is it so hard for organizations to understand what Tony [Hsieh] did with customer service at Zappos? ... He insisted that the operators be trained and rewarded to take their time and actually be human, to connect and make a difference instead of merely processing the incoming. People hear this, see the billion dollars in goodwill that was created, nod their heads and then go back to running an ‘efficient' call center." (Seth Godin blog, June 11, 2013)

There's no alternative to your team thinking through your organization's unique brand and approach, both to identify the right questions and to determine the answers that work. Simple example, and to Seth Godin's point: Maybe your average handling time (AHT) for customer interactions is higher than the industry norm. But if you are using that time to prevent repeat contacts and to capture information that can improve R&D on products and services, you may be producing far greater strategic value.

Or, consider the oft-asked question of what an organization should invest in service (e.g., as a percent of the top line, gross margin, or related). If you look at top-tier companies in customer satisfaction ratings, they tend to be all over the board due to four key variables:

  • First, different business models. Some are more pure service plays (e.g., Uber or Amex), while others have high costs in products and operations (e.g., Marriott or Lexus).
  • Second, there's often a challenge in differentiating between service and operations. That can be a hard line to draw in comparisons, and different organizations tend to have different definitions.
  • Third, a growing number of organizations mix sales and service. For example, Apple retail stores do both, raising questions of where to make a distinction.
  • Forth, investments in large customer service projects (such as CRM systems) can significantly impact budgets. The degree to which they are a part of other initiatives (back office, supply chain, etc.) and how they are amortized will impact what's counted.

I happen to like this issue, as it forces exploration of important questions. But don't make the mistake of seeking a hard prescription or looking for a number to emulate.

An important lesson that has emerged from the privilege of working with many service operations over the years: The best—those making the most significant contributions to their organizations' success—did not achieve exemplary levels of performance by acquiring benchmark reports and imitating what they found. More often than not, they bucked the trend.

We need leadership, not mass comparison and imitation. By all means, do your homework, which includes staying in the know on what's happening. But go much further. Think about your organization's brand promise and what it means to the services you provide. Develop a solid customer access strategy that supports your organization's overall strategic objectives. Above all, have the courage to step out of the crowd and do what's right for your organization and customers.

(Postscript to client story in opening note: They moved away from trying to hit numerous objectives and instead focused on improving a few key aspects of their operation. These included forecasting accuracy of workloads, more consistent quality, better cross-functional communication, and capturing and using information from interactions to improve products and processes. Overall results and morale improved significantly.)

Recent Issues


Statistics in this issue come from recent ICMI research:


Contact centers that offer multichannel support. The average consumer uses three or more channels regularly for customer service.


Consumers who use three or more channels for customer service.


Contact centers that have added at least one new channel to their support mix, with almost half saying that more are being implemented within the year.


Contact centers that forecast volume for social media support.

Who "owns" or "co-owns" social media customer service?
Marketing 56%
Contact Center 52%
PR 23%
HR 6%

Source: ICMI research, 2014,

Organizational silos and delegated customer experience responsibility are barriers to operationalizing omnichannel experience. Silos inhibit conversations, information sharing and teams working towards a common cause. Most CEOs respond by hiring a customer experience leader responsible for tearing down these silos. Lancaster [Mark Lancaster, founder and CEO of SDL Group] adamantly states "that will not work because you're only adding yet another layer to the organization to deal with the problem. The CEO needs to own the problem."

Source: Christine Crandall,, August 25, 2014.


Take an afternoon break for a (fun!) brainstorm: Think through the customer experience your organization provides. If you were to start over—but without access to industry surveys or benchmarks—how would you proceed? Remember: try to envision that you just don't know what others are doing out there. Consider these five areas:

  • The channels you'd roll out
  • Where service sits in the organization's structure
  • Investment priorities
  • The top three key goals/objectives you'd establish
  • Whom you'd recruit for your customer service team


Brad's upcoming public speaking events:*

  • Montréal, Quebec, September 16, 2014. Keynote on the future of customer service, for CLICCC, Federated Press
  • Bogotá, Colombia, October 24 and 25, 2014. Workshop on maximizing the strategic value of customer interaction. Details TBA.
  • Chicago, November 3-5, 2014. ICMI's Contact Center Demo, sessions on effective contact center management.

*Brad delivers many private keynotes, workshops, and executive briefings to organizations and associations. For more information, contact


  • Video, Today's Contact Center: The Internal Engine that Engages Customer Communities
  • Article, Customer Engagement Emerges as the Next Frontier in Product Innovation.
  • Video, Retaining the Right Customers.
  • Article, The Business of Workforce Management.

About Brad

Brad has devoted his career to maximizing the value of customer-facing services. As a speaker, consultant, entrepreneur, executive, and president/CEO, he has seen change from many perspectives and has a deep understanding of the critical importance of customer service delivery to an organization's success. He has worked across 45 states and in 60 countries, and has been privileged to assist in the evolution of service delivery for clients such as American Express, Apple, Coca-Cola, USAA, and others, as well as for governments across the globe. Brad serves as a senior advisor to the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), and is an in-demand speaker and consultant.

To inquire about consulting or speaking, connect through any of the channels below.

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