Creating Consistency for Innovative Service


"The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. You can't blow an uncertain trumpet."

--Theodore Hesburgh        


From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on a hot August afternoon in 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a well-chronicled speech.  His oratory did not start with the words, “I have a strategic plan.”  The momentous word Dr. King chose instead was “…a dream…that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed…”

King’s powerful speech was a watershed in the history of the civil rights movement in America.  The speech gave thousands of activists a clear vision of a day “…when my four little children will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  The words became a call to action that unified people around a shared, persuasive purpose and echoed a consistent theme of non-violent demonstration, imploring others to channel harmful rage into a more constructive method of culture change.

While changing entrenched racial views isn’t the same as changing organizational cultures, the preconditions to success are similar.  Culture change involves helping people abandon comfortable, habitual and often corrosive attitudes and actions for those that are new, untested and even frightening.  Such a transformation requires a vision sufficiently compelling to invite courageous action.  And it also demands behavioral standards and norms that promote consistency of action.

Why Start with a Service Vision?

When it comes to service, consistency is not “the hobgoblin of little minds,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said. Customers require consistency for trust.  Texas A&M researcher Leonard Berry found that the number one attribute customers value in the service they receive is reliability – an organization’s ability to provide what was promised, dependably and accurately. Customers want the service from branch A to be as good as branch B; they don’t like having to choose a specific location -- or a specific teller, floor salesperson or waiter -- because opting for others represents a roll of the dice. We want them all to live up to our expectations.

How do you get everyone in the organization “rowing together” as one to deliver a consistently high level of service – the kind of reliable and trustworthy performance that keeps customers coming back again and again?  It starts with a compelling and actionable service vision.

Consistent service excellence demands some decision guidelines or “anchors” that make it easy for every employee to make decisions that align with the company’s overarching service mission.  Creating a Service Vision, Standards and Norms provides those critical alignment anchors.

Virtually every business book, keynote speech or consulting proposal on culture change starts off with “Get a vision.”  Yet a quick check with the truth tellers on the front lines who actually survive the “brass band, banter and ballyhoo” announcement of “our new vision” will reveal that most end up as a framed fixture, not as a valued compass.  If a clear vision is needed for successful culture change, yet most vision efforts fail to pass the “snicker test” with rank-and-file workers (because the words sound more like an advertising slogan than a true representation of management beliefs or business goals, making employees giggle and guffaw) where does it falter?  Is the disconnect from poor preparation or inadequate wordsmithing?  Or perhaps a flawed vision development process?  The truth is the process of vision creation is the most frequent culprit.

Service vision success stories share four components:

  • Effective service visions reflect a blend of four inputs: 1) customer loyalty drivers — those performance areas that have biggest influence on customers’ repurchase intentions, 2) a clear-eyed review of the unit or organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, 3) leadership’s own vision of what constitutes distinctive service and 4) the active participation of every employee.
  • Leaders willing to say, “Here is our service vision, the signature experience we strive to create for our customers, and nothing is more important than ‘living that vision’ – nothing.”
  • Leaders who use the service vision as the “lens” through which to look at all plans, practices and performances to insure they are consistent with what is expected by customers.  Those leaders also must be bold enough to take action when policies or processes are out of synch with the vision.
  • Leaders who model service vision-aligned behaviors (and insist that others do as well) and champion modified performance management processes to evaluate and emphasize those service behaviors.

A Service Vision in Action

A clear vision is the mechanism that enables employee energies to be aligned toward exemplary service.  It is the tool that helps leaders make choices among initiatives competing for their time and budgetary resources.  It also provides the underpinning for all service standards, norms, metrics, and structures.

Service visions are best understood by way of example.  In chapter X we introduced you to Freeman, a Dallas-based company that provides services for expositions, exhibits and corporate events.  Long renowned for delivering superior service to meeting planners, show managers, and association leadership, Freeman discovered that it had shortchanged  a key constituency while showering attention on others — the exhibitor.

Market research indicated that treating the exhibitor as a key customer was essential to Freeman’s future growth.  More and more exhibitors—especially large corporate clients who exhibit at many conferences and shows a year—had a growing influence on who show management selected to manage their exhibit space.  And Freeman wanted to be exhibitors’ “service provider of choice.”

So the company crafted a service vision to communicate a new focus and to insure a high level of service quality for exhibitors. Freeman used four key steps to formulate the vision:

  • Identify your key customers.  For Freemanâ it was, obviously, the exhibitor, not just show management.
  • Identify the primary loyalty drivers for this key customer group.  We all know the core contribution to customers is important.  For airlines, it’s moving people from point A to point B, on time, safely, with luggage intact.  Delivering on those basics might yield customer satisfaction, but not necessarily loyalty.  Through its customer research Freeman learned the things that kept exhibitors loyal to the organization were unfailing accuracy, responsiveness to requests or problems, and professionalism.
  • Decide what you want to be famous for. A service vision ought to have some “jump start” component that makes you distinctive and exciting in the eyes of customers.  L.L. Bean is well-known for its return policy, for how it personalizes the online shopping experience, and Walt DisneyWorld for creating magical moments.  Find that “secret sauce” that reflects the vision of leaders, sets you apart from competitors and bolsters pride among employees.  Freeman decided to customize more of the services it delivers to exhibitors as a way to create distinction from competitors.
  • Get lots of employees involved.  Everyone from the front lines to mahogany row should be asked for input, react to drafts and offer suggestions about what will “play in Peoria.”  If employees cannot find their fingerprints on final draft of the vision, they are not likely to own it and live it.

The service vision of Freeman ended up sounding like this:

“The service vision of Freeman is to support exhibitors, show managers and event professionals in the successful marketing of their products and services by providing highly personalized, proactive solutions delivered through a valued relationship with trusted, accessible experts.”

Standards Bring the Vision to Life

Martin Luther King did far more for civil rights than give a powerful speech in Washington, DC.  His movement provided instruction, guidance and role modeling in what non-violent resistance looked like in the streets, restaurants and courtrooms of America.  Like Dr. King’s speech, a service vision can set the tone and inspire the troops, but it is only a starting point. People need direction, mileposts and incremental goals to insure their performance aligns with the vision and is consistent across the organization.  Service standards grow out of the service vision.  They illustrate how “The Freeman Way” or “The Acme Style” looks in thought and action in the call center, sales floor or the check-out line.

Behaviors that consistently breed customer loyalty won’t occur without company-wide standards and norms that are aligned with the service vision.  Service breakdowns often happen, for example, at the intersection of two internal units that only care about their side of the equation.  If there are precise, worked-out-in-advance standards about inter-departmental operations and cooperation – and if units are held accountable for meeting them -- it provides a blueprint for efficient and effective execution.  The overall goal is consistent practice and aligned efforts.  Such consistency – delivering on promises, again and again -- builds trust in customers and helps cement their loyalty to the organization.

Where do Standards come from?

An organization wide standard communicates what all associates strive to be, every time, in a similar fashion, across the organization so customers get a consistent style, attitude, or manner.  They are crafted around performance dimensions that have the biggest influence on customer loyalty, as well as those factors deemed most important by the service vision.

Addressing three questions can help develop a more effective and compelling service vision:

1) What Do Customers Value?  Begin by reviewing the primary customer loyalty drivers to ensure standards are built around performance factors that customers really value, not those that have little impact on whether they decide to keep doing business with you.  When research told Freeman that responsiveness to requests, questions or problems was key to winning the loyalty of exhibitor customers, leaders transformed that finding into one of 10 service standards:

“We exist to serve and provide value to our customers by understanding their needs and delivering appropriate quality solutions on-time, first time, every time.”

2) What in the Organization’s Culture is in Need of Repair?  Factors associated with organizational culture can often create barriers to good service.  Freeman, for example, discovered that employees too often avoided responsibility when things went wrong for customers, failing to “own” problems and see them through to effective resolution – regardless of who was to blame.

A new service standard emerged to address this barrier:  “We meet our commitments to our customers and colleagues -- there are no excuses. We own up to mistakes and respond proactively to find a solution.

3) What is the Organization’s “Special Opportunity?”  Service standards bring to life the “secret sauce” that makes a unit or organization stand out from its competitors.  Start by asking where in the organization opportunities exist for differentiation in serving customers or colleagues.  Freeman believed personalizing more of its services, and designing its service functions through the eyes of the customer, would provide a competitive edge.  The standard that resulted was this:

The Job of a Norm

  • Does it prescribe an action, behavior or practice consistent with the standard?
  • Is it clear enough that all who read it would have the same understanding of what it meant?
  • Is it stated in a way that it could be easily measured or verified?
  • Can the norm fit service both to customers & colleagues?
  • Does the norm reflect the Service Vision

“At Freeman we do everything with a customer-centered focus rather than for internal convenience.”

Turning Standards into Norms

While service standards are effective at establishing general guidelines and mindsets, they can be open to interpretation.  Use of “norms” brings another layer of precision to the service vision by helping employees see what a standard looks like in action. Norms outline examples of behaviors and practices that demonstrate how the standard looks when applied in day-to-day service situations.

A norm describes what all associates strive to do, every time, in the same fashion, across the organization, so customers get consistent action, effort, or execution.  Think of norms like this:  if you shot a video of a colleague serving customers in a way consistent with a given standard, the resulting footage would be a norm.

Freeman, for example, developed a new standard around customer feedback and how that feedback was to be used throughout the organization.  Leaders then identified a collection of norms to help illustrate what that standard would look like in practice:


We continually seek timely customer feedback. We implement changes that enhance our customers’ experience and improve the ease of doing business with Freeman.

  • We listen openly before responding to our customer.
  • The voice of the customer drives our business.
  • We will continually look for innovative methods of improving our customers’ experience.

They also used a standard and set of norms to address the long held tendency to focus on what worked for Freeman over what worked for customers.


We do everything with a customer-centered focus rather than for internal convenience.


  • We stop and take care of the customer even if the customer interrupts us in the middle of a task.
  • We always look for ways to make the customers’ experience easier.
  • We insure our internal focus is customer driven.

Completing the Blueprint for Customer Loyalty

Just as an organization might have a price strategy, product strategy or competitive strategy, it is vital they have a service strategy.  Think of a service strategy as the overarching approach to make service a vital part of organizational focus.  After drafting a Service Vision, Standards, and Norms, it can be helpful to assemble a cross-functional team to create an initial Service Strategy Implementation Plan (SSIP).  A typical initial SSIP includes a leadership plan, communications and rollout plan for cascading the service vision, standards and norms throughout the organization as well as the initiation of an ongoing alignment process.

Staying the Course

There’s no shortage of research into what makes for great service leadership; the studies, books and articles could likely fill a vast warehouse.  We have seen executives fund and preside over service visioning retreats that produce extraordinary prose yet eventually end up in the “project of the month” file.  We have observed senior leaders plod diligently through meetings, memos, and minutia only to watch a promising unit or organization end up with mediocrity as its claim to fame.  And we have seen leaders who had a bold mission and an insatiable drive show an unwillingness to do the little things, take the necessary risks -- and persist in the face of setback – when all those actions were essential for service distinction.

We believe all three ingredients—dream, drive and daring—are required for the service greatness recipe.

Although the civil rights movement no longer graces the front pages, it is far from over.  The ranks of CEOs, board members, U.S. senators and other positions of power still have relatively few people of color, and there is much work left to do.  It’s a reminder that change has no finish line.  But the considerable progress made since that warm August day on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial occurred because people like Dr. King had a dream that proved so compelling it still reverberates in the minds of activists more than 40 years later.

It was a dream that, much like the best service visions, fueled a consistent drive in others and provided a beacon to follow in taking the courageous actions and showing the resilience necessary to create enduring change.

© 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.