Acknowledge the Humanity of Your Customers, with Anne Morriss, Chief Knowledge Officer, Concire Leadership Institute

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.

Frei and Morris’ advice: rather than trying to do it all, pick one essential thing and do it really well. Take, for example, Commerce Bank. They chose to focus their efforts on customer service, and within that bucket to compete on friendliness and convenience.





Acknowledging the humanity of your customers is an essential part of delivering service excellence. Commerce Bank started by tapping into a very persistent pain point in its market, so everyone, I mean; banker’s hours were a term of derision for generations. I mean the fact that banks would be open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. in time for bankers to be out on the golf course, is something that made everybody crazy. Commerce looked at the obvious and said, “All right, we’re going to compete on convenience. And we’re also going to compete on friendliness,” because the other thing that made people crazy was how imperialistic and ornery all these bank employees were. So, the fact that it was so hard to get a loan and you walk into the bank and it was deeply intimidating and it felt like no one was on your side. I mean, that’s something that, I mean, an entire market of retail banking experience.


You know, customers, they were essentially were making customers miserable, but customers didn’t have an option. And so Commerce Bank walked in and said, all right, we’re going to compete on friendliness, and we’re going to compete on convenience. And then what do we have to do to be able to build a sustainable organization that can deliver on those two things? And they realized that they needed to charge a little bit more, but they had to do it in a way that was palatable to their customers.


They couldn’t charge for teller visits, the industry had tried that, customers rebelled; they had to pay more to talk to a human being. No one wanted to do that. And so they decided that they would just, the rates on their savings accounts would be, would just be a little bit worse. And you know, a little bit is probably understating it. They declared that they would have the worst rates in every market they went into, but in return, they would give you convenient and friendly service. And convenient and friendly service meant people were excited to have you walk into the door, you know, you got free coffee, if it was raining; they would walk you to their car. And you know what? They were open when you actually wanted to go to the bank. So they were open on weekends, they were open nights, they were ready to serve you at the time when you had a service need. And that was, shockingly, that was a radical departure for this industry.


Another tradeoff they asked customers to make is that they give you a very simplified product set. So, essentially, in an industry where you can get, you know 50 different checking accounts, Commerce gave you one. And one of the reasons they did that was it allowed them to hire people who did not come from the industry, who did not necessarily bring a deep skillset around financial planning, and so they could just hire fantastically friendly people. The rule of thumb they used was, do you smile in a resting state? And you know, walk around and look at most people in the world, most people do not smile in a resting state. Most of us, it takes a little bit of energy to smile, but Commerce Bank employees, they’re part of this special breed of human being that smiles in a resting state.


And so they hired a couple and they said, you guys know how to find each other, here are cards. If you get great service anywhere, if it is at McDonalds, if you are at a restaurant, if you are at a book store and you get great service, tell that person to come to Commerce Bank because we want them for our team. And that’s what they do. You know, people would show up. And these are the congenitally friendly people in the world came to work at Commerce Bank. And it didn’t matter that they couldn’t speak finance, it didn’t matter because they were happy people and they make other people happy to be around them. And that’s what the bank was competing on.


You have to set your employees up to be able to be responsive to that humanity. And one of the ways to do that is to limit the complexity of the job, the frontline job they have to do. So, it’s very difficult if you’re in a call center looking at eight different screens of information to respond empathetically to the needs and anxieties of that person on the other end of the line. And that’s part of the system that you have to drop your employees into. You have to create the space for them to respond to the humanity of your customers.



In this lesson, Anne Morriss walks you through their strategy. By the end of it, you’ll have a framework for rethinking your own customer service strategy.

• Practice friendliness, convenience, and respect.
• Make trade-offs that make your customers happy.
• Service with a smile is the most important service there is.
• Hire employees who get it, then create a space for them to give it.