“You Can’t Be Good At Everything”

A few years ago I had the good fortune of attending Harvard Business School’s Governing for Nonprofit Excellence program. The experience was transformative (turns out it’s Harvard for a reason), and gave me membership to a group populated with other grateful Triangle leaders sent to Harvard by local philanthropist Chuck Re Corr. Chuck has been sending 14 non-profit leaders from the Triangle every year.  (To learn about what motivates Chuck to invest in our local non-profit community, watch this short video by clicking here.)

I regularly reflect upon and apply what I learned that week.

For instance, one afternoon, Harvard faculty member and author, Frances Frei, came in to lecture. She had just finished co-authoring Uncommon Service:  How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business.  Before introducing her key principles, she entertained us with business examples and creative approaches to customer service.

  • She talked about how Starbucks has successfully trained its customers to order their own products (“Venti double latte half-caf”) as a strategy for efficient service, thus eliminating the need for follow-up questions during the ordering process: what size? regular or decaf?  add ins?
  • She talked about the insurance company with the highest customer service rating. It’s the one that shows up on the scene of the car accident even before the ambulance does. They arrive bearing hot coffee, a warm blanket and a sympathetic ear. They also boast the lowest rate of insurance fraud (“gee, you didn’t mention any neck pain to me when we talked right after the accident”).

Then she moved on to one of her four service truths: “You Can’t Be Good At Everything.”  She explained that in order to be great, you have to be bad.  She meant that you have to underperform on things that customers value less, in order to perform well on the ones they value most. Trying to do everything well inevitably leaves you providing mediocre service. “In order to be great, you have to be bad.”

She gave an example using Walmart. They certainly deliver on low prices and access, as they are open every moment of every day.  They do not excel at offering a lot of brand variety.  Nor are they, let’s face it, good at providing customer service.  Professor Frei emphasized that you need to be methodical about determining what is and is not important to your customers. Be great at the things that are important to them, and crucially, embrace and don’t apologize for unimportant things you are not good at.  There’s even an exercise in the book - or online at uncommonservice.com - that walks you through identifying what you should be good and bad at, in order to deliver excellent service.

Reflecting on that day and days since, I think about the “service truth” and what it means to the non-profit sector.  If you try to be good at everything, you’ll end up being mediocre.  While you may pay a high price for that in businesses, in the human service world, it often means people suffer.   They don’t get better or healthier, their conditions don’t improve, and the organization does not feel good about their work. It also means that the efforts are not aligned with what’s most important to the people served.  These are serious oversights and will affect organizations’ ability to thrive.  Yet too many organizations pride themselves on doing “whatever our clients ask for or need.”  

This type of discussion can and should find its way into the boardroom. Try it.  See what you learn.  And let us know.

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