Rethinking the Meaning of Service

“There is absolutely no ambiguity about the true meaning of a back blast,” barked the Army sergeant as he was cautioning recruits in boot camp to avoid getting behind an anti-tank bazooka (now the M72 LAW) about to be fired.  How many things in life have “absolutely no ambiguity about their true meaning?”

It got us thinking about the true meaning of “customer service.”  If the restaurant has salt and paper on your table, is that customer service?  What if they gave you an air conditioned room in which to dine in the summer?  Would you call the elevator in the office building customer service?  How about the ATM machine?

Some might say “yes” to all.  They would broad stroke it all from condiments on the table to the concierge in a five-star hotel.  But, that covers a lot of ground.  It not only waters down the concept to be practically meaningless, it leaves a lot of room for ambiguity.  This vagueness contributes to leaders believing their customer service is good when their customers think it is poor.

One of the best definitions of customer service we know was posited by writer Jamier Scott. “Customer service is a series of activities designed to enhance the level of customer satisfaction– that is, the feeling that a product or service has met the customer expectation."  But, even Mr. Scott broad strokes the meaning with his “activities” label.  What if we put customer service on a continuum or even on a hierarchy, much like Abraham Maslow did in his attempt to explain human motivation?  After all, is there not a similarity between worker motivation and customer affinity?

When people ask questions like is self-service better than full-service, it implies either-or thinking that may be missing the point--like asking a senior citizen in a nursing home which is better, a back rub or a visit from the family.

The basic level of customer service involves simply getting the desired end result, effect or outcome.  We often refer to this level as service air--since, just like the air we breathe, we take it for granted unless it is either absent or threatened.  A passenger on an airline expects the plane to land safely in the right city on time with luggage in tow.  It is the given or table stake of customer service.  Much like Maslow’s basic or survival level on his need hiearchy, if your physiological needs are unmet, nothing else matters.

The next level in “service motivation” is ease.  We expect service to be without hassle.  We require it to be rendered with limited effort on our part.  The more undue energy one has to exert in getting basic service requirements met, the lower the assessment of the experience.  As service-seeking customers, we do not like bureaucracy; wait, forms, rigid rules, and any service experience that requires us to jump through hoops.  Self service, done well, makes getting service easier, faster and simpler.

Engagement is the service version of Maslow’s social or belonging need.  As social people we value service providers who host, support and collaborate with us to insure we get what we want, need and expect.  We enjoy service providers who are friendly, knowledgeable and helpful.  We value those that show us courtesy and respect.  The journey through service land is much more caring and encouraging when we have a guide and champion to go with us…or at least insure our journey is a pleasant one.

Extra reminds us that we are special and important to the service provider.  It is the service level that puts a cherry on top of the experience.  It is at its pinnacle when it is tailor-made for a particularly customer.  As customers, we enjoy service “our way.” When a service provider goes the extra mile to provide value-added, it communicates we are valued and important.  Extra is the realm of delight, not just satisfaction.  It is the kind of experience that creates a story to tell and reason to return.  And, it turns retention into loyalty.

Exhilaration is as rare in service as self-actualization is in Maslow’s motivation peak in people.  It is a service experience that surfaces the best of who we are as people.  It is enriching and ennobling.  Often laced with generosity, it the service provider that epitomizes the very essence of what it means “to serve.”  Bill Marriott likes to refer to this kind of service as the nobility of service--designed to touch your soul and reawaken your spirit.  Think of it as service providers who view serving as a calling with a quest of insuring the recipient of their efforts are moved by the experience.

Operationalizing the Service Hierarchy

Kurt Lewin wrote, “Nothing is as practical as a good theory.”  However, theories on paper offer little more than intellectual entertainment and academic speculation.  Practicality can only result when the theory instructs us in ways that enhance or improve practice.

What can the service hierarchy tell us?  First, it suggests that service is multifaceted.  If a customer wants a cold can of soda and nothing more, a convenient vending machine that keeps its promise is probably sufficient.  However, that same soda with a gourmet meal for a special occasion dining experience might require delivery with an elegant waiter on the other end.  In other words, the manner the customer defines service adequacy varies with time, place, and circumstance.

Service wisdom comes with knowing the requirements and expectations of the target customer and possessing the malleability to shift when the context changes what the customer desires.  A business hotel on Tuesday can become a destination hotel on the weekend.  Even if the customer is the same mid-week as well as weekend, the Tuesday service-on-the-run business traveler will likely demand a more pampering experience on Saturday, especially if that special person accompanies.

The service hierarchy also informs that the higher the level on the hierarchy, the greater the propensity for loyalty.  Getting a fundamental service need met with minimal or zero effort is not the stuff of customer devotion.  We all enjoy the comfort of knowing the lights will come on when we flip the wall switch.  But, no one races to the phone or computer to tell a friend about the greatness of plain vanilla electric service.  The first two levels on the hierarchy are likely to be only the realm for satisfaction, not loyalty…and, certainly not for ardent advocacy.

Loyalty, therefore, begins at engagement--that part of the hierarchy where people as servers (not machines) reside.  Even if partially automated, it is the realm where the guardian of the service covenant lives and remains obviously vigilant over the service encounter.  When things go wrong, solutions to resolving disappointment cannot come from the End Result or Ease level of the hierarchy, but must come from the Engagement level.  Extra is engagement done with excellence and generosity; Exhilaration is engagement done with character and soul.

© Chip Bell Group, 2023.  Courtesy of John R. Patterson (  Permission is given to download and distribute this article as long as it contains this copyright notice.