Strategic Service Thinking PDF Print E-mail


he concept of strategy is (to all intents and purposes) aimed at outmanoeuvreing your competition by putting your product or organisation into a more advantageous position in the marketplace relative to those competitors, where it matters most. And, as we know, where it matters most is in the minds of your customers. If customers believe you to be better than your opposition, then indeed you are better. In an era when it is becoming increasingly difficult to create and sustain competitive advantages, more and more companies are seeking to obtain that longer lasting edge through customer service. In other words, service is playing a greater strategic role in the affairs of more and more business organisations, than ever before.

There are however, a number of guidelines that can be applied to the formulation and implementation of a service orientated strategy. Personally, I am inspired by the works of Miyamoto Musashi, that great seventeenth century samurai warrior, who wrote a treatise on strategy, and whose work is utilised today by many contemporary Japanese corporations.[1]

Whilst it has often been argued, ( and quite rightly so), that there are many cultural differences between the Japanese and most other nations in the whole strategic thought process, it is worth noting that there are about nine main principles that emerge from Musashi's work that are applicable to most business organisations irrespective of their heritage and founding culture. What I have done is to examine these nine principles in the light of service thinking and improvement. I hope that they give the reader some guideline to follow in the development and implementation of a strategic service plan, or any strategic initiative for that matter.

This is an obvious but often overlooked point. If you want to have any chance of outmaneouvering your competitors and creating a sustainable competitive advantage, then it makes sense to find out as much as you can about how well or badly those competitors look after their customers. What level of service do they offer the marketplace? Where does it fall short? Where could you improve upon it, perhaps to such an extent that you could create a distinctive advantage? Test their service at all levels. Find out if the competition live up to all their advertising claims. Send in ghost customers of your own to test the competition. Scrutinise every aspect of their service from top to bottom, before you decide what form your initiative will take. Don't simply assume that a carefully planned service initiative will automatically be better than that of your opposition. Plan to be better!

There will be certain predictable courses of action that your competitors may decide to follow. Understanding the level of service that they offer as well as the expectations of your customers will enable you to creatively out think the opposition. There is a certain degree of predictability in many service issues within most business organisations . It is therefore up to you to find out how your competitors are planning to try and outmanoeuvre you. You must then try to avoid getting caught. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese sage summed it up quite nicely, two thousand years before Musashi, when he commented that " the good fighters of old first put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity of defeating the enemy."[2 ] The use of customer service principles can make a contribution towards this scenario. It is up to you to plan it properly.

Remember! The whole point of the exercise is to put yourself and your company into a more advantageous position in the marketplace relative to your opposition. That demands paying attention to detail in everything you do whilst dealing with the customer. What may be petty to you may be of utmost importance to the customer. Personalise your service. Make every meeting or contact with the customer count. Use it as a opportunity to keep the competition at bay and to prove to the customer that you are better than competing firms and that your product has better service support. Building customer loyalty is achieved by providing excellent service to one customer at a time. For the individual salesperson that can be a long, hard process. Nonetheless, it is an investment that pays handsome dividends in the long run.

Just as top class athletes have to constantly train, and more importantly, never to forget the rudiments of their chosen sport, so too is it vital for organisations and their people to regularly revisit the fundamental principles of customer care. Yet too many companies think that by "training" their sales people or their front line staff via a one day training programme once every two years or so, that customer training is well catered for in their organisation. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are three fundamental rules to bear in mind as far as customer care training is concerned.

1. Everybody in your company should be trained. From the managing director to the most junior person, everybody needs to be exposed to the principles of serving the customer.

There are too many managers who believe that because they are managers, customer care training is not applicable to them. If anything, they are often the ones who need it most, as they have a special responsibility to lead the way in the provision of excellent service. Moreover, this training should guide people to see the contribution that each and every staff member can make towards the provision of a culture of service within the organisation.

2. Training needs to be reinforced and conducted on a regular basis. A one off training session or programme serves little purpose in the long run. Can you imagine what would happen to a rugby team if it decided only to train once or twice? It would not get very far. The same is true in business. Only by regular training and reinforcement of the principles of customer care and service will the company and its people progress towards the provision of a level of service that can assist in creating that sought after competitive advantage.

3. Company personnel and in particular the front line staff should be consulted about the development and implementation of any training initiative. Their input is invaluable in fine tuning training ideas now and in the future.

Its True! Perception does equal reality when it comes to service. Not so long ago, I conducted a survey for a client company into what its customers thought about the level of service provided by my client's sales representatives. The sales team was horrified to learn that customers felt that overall, and with only a couple of exceptions, service was really poor. They thought that they were the darlings of their industry. They had fallen into the perceptual trap - thinking that their customers perceived them to be good service providers. There are a number of basic customer care principles which teach you to improve customer perception. Take every opportunity you get to do just that. The stronger positive perception the customer has, the more he customer moves towards a positive belief. The stronger the positive belief, the more likely the customer is to excuse slight irregularities and the more difficult it becomes for competitors to make inroads against you.

Too many organisations window dress when it comes to customer service. I have often found that service initiatives have been designed to be of benefit to the company. That approach surely courts disaster. Quite simply, any service initiative has to be of benefit to the customer and should reflect the organisation's genuine concern about creating the highest degree of customer delight. Gimmicks that have a short life span do little to enhance customer trust and company credibility in the marketplace.

I n much the same way as a military strategist needs to know and understand the use of many weapons, so too must company management fully understand the various principles that l govern the company's service strategy. Furthermore, this point relates back to principle number 4 above which encourages us to continually train in customer care principles. My advice is therefore to study as many customer care principles as you can. Learn how to deal with customers in different circumstances. With the customers you like, and the ones that you find it difficult with which to develop a rapport. Study and practice relationship building ideas and principles. Learn and practice how to effectively handle customer complaints, queries and problems. Look within yourself and decide how you, given the job that you do, can make an effective contribution to your company's ability to provide excellent service to its customers and the marketplace in general. No matter who you are or what job you do.

Put simply, strategic service excellence can only be achieved, and customer service will only do its job, if it is carefully thought out either as a plan in its own right or as part of the organisation's wider marketing or strategic planning initiative. Emotional attack will only take place and be successful when everyone in the company is motivated to provide the highest degree of customer service. Attacking emotionally means having everyone focused on doing their job productively and actively contributing towards the provision of excellent service.

Although the terminology sounds vicious, one has to remember that Musashi was writing during a violent period in Japan's history. He was a warrior after all. It should also be remembered that the South African business environment is becoming more and more competitive, and whilst we still have a long way to go before we reach the level of sophisticated competitiveness that can be found in contemporary Japan or the United States, local customers are slowly becoming more discerning and demanding. Therefore, it must never be forgotten that the reason behind the use of customer care principles and tenets is to (a) ensure that your customers remain loyal and do not defect to the competition and (b) attract customers away from your competitors. That should be foremost is your mind, and you should never ever shirk that responsibility.

These nine points illustrate how the concept of customer service can be utilised in a strategic manner. Not only from a corporate perspective, but also from the individual's position as well. To use them effectively, and to get as much mileage as possible from them, I urge the reader to interpret them in terms of the job and responsibility that you hold within your company. Only then will they give you the guidance, and provide you and hopefully your organisation with a better strategic service initiative.


[1] The interested reader can consult Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings, (Translated from The Japanese By Victor Harris), London: Allison and Busby, 1982. It is worth noting that Musashi was, according to historical research, undefeated in combat, and so can be regarded as an expert in strategic thinking.

[2] See Sun Tzu, The Art of War, ( Edited and Foreword By James Clavell), London: Hodder and Stoughton 1987. p 28

Reprinted from Dorrian, Paul.Strategic Service Thinking. Successful Salesmanship , June 1997