While different organizations provide different levels of service—from dismissive to reluctant to systematic to reactive to anticipatory—the most effective do it by choice. They understand the return on their service investment and invest appropriately. For those focused on design or production, minimal service levels are optimal. Delivery-focused organizations need more. And service-focused organizations need the most.

Let’s work our way up from the bottom.

DismissiveJack Nicholson in Easy Rider




We’ve all experienced dismissive service where people refuse to bend the rules.

We’ve all felt like Jack Nicholson stymied in his attempt to order an omelet with toast.

Dismissive service is worse than no service. People get less upset if they know they can’t call to get help than if they are forced to wait on hold for extended periods of time. Everyone knows the message, “Due to high levels of customer calls, wait times may be longer than usual,” is really a result of the company cutting back on their service levels.



Reluctant service is one click up from dismissive. Where the dismissive say “no,” the reluctant consent to a service request, but make you feel bad about asking for it.

Those providing no service, dismissive or reluctant service are consciously or unconsciously choosing to win in other ways – most likely design or production. This is why successful artists have managers – so they can focus their art and leave the service aspects to someone else.



Systematic service is scalable and generally controllable.


Federal Express built its entire business on systematically taking packages from point A to their central hub and back out to point B overnight. No one thinks that service is personalized. It works.

At the other extreme, the staff of The Mandarin Oriental puts toothpicks on guest room doors overnight. When they see a toothpick moved, they know to go in and clean the room, delighting guests returning after breakfast or the like.



Whatever the systematic service level, some react well to extra requests. This is the mirror image of reluctant service.

We were staying at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. Room service was available from 6:30 to 10:00. We had an early flight; so I called and asked if we could get service 30 minutes earlier. The tone of the immediate “Of course,” made me feel welcomed and appreciated.



The highest level of service is anticipatory—giving you things before you know you need them.

A lady was sitting by the side of a hotel pool. She got a phone call and walked away so as not to bother anyone. A couple of minutes later a member of the staff brought her a chair—well before she got tired of standing.


Core Focus

Every organization designs, produces, sells, delivers and services in some way. The most effective know which of those, other than selling, defines their core. Then they align their culture, organization, the CEO’s role and how they operate with that core.

Design-focused organizations’ optimal service levels are likely the minimum acceptable to enable others to access their designs. They’re likely not going to respond well to requests for modification at the design level. Think in terms of fashion houses and their couture collections. They use these to make design statements.

Production-focused organizations also will likely systematize their service. But, unlike design-focused organizations, they may need to be more practical and adapt what they’re doing to their customers’ needs, responding to some of their service requests.

Delivery is a service. As discussed, Federal Express provides a great example of systematized service. On top of this, their heroes are those that go above and beyond the call of duty to deliver things on time in the face of obstacles.

Service-focused organizations do best when they’re clear on which parts of their service should be systematized, reactive and proactive as the costs and customer impact of those may be dramatically different.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #764) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.

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