Great service is service with boundaries

The retail mythology world loves to tell this story.

A women goes into Nordstrom to return snow tires and they take them back without a receipt. Right now, you are probably not questioning the “without a receipt” part. But you are probably scratching your head over the snow tire part.

I didn’t think Nordstrom sold snow tires

You are right, they don’t. But they took them back anyway.

Now, I’m not sure if the story is true or when it began, but this is pretty extraordinary. The snow tires and woman may be fictitious, but the return policy at Nordstrom is true. Stories like this make me feel comfortable that if anything goes wrong with anything I buy at Nordstrom, it will be taken care of without a hassle.

That is what I call service without boundaries. No doubt, it is good for business. But more often than not, these scenarios backfire because most store associates are not empowered to provide service without boundaries.

A different approach
I recently took a trip to Switzerland. The weather was beautiful one day and we decided to sit outside at a local restaurant. The only problem was the tables available were directly in the sun. I didn’t feel like squinting the whole time I was eating, so we asked the hostess if we could sit on the other side of the deck.

The only empty tables needed to be dried a bit since they were not in the sun and some ice melted on them. Her response was: You can sit here (sunny table #1), here (sunny table #2) or leave.

Was I insulted? No. And if I was, I was quickly won over by the wonderful food.

Part of this conversation could have gotten lost in translation. English was not her first language. But as days passed on my trip, I noticed it more and more in other situations. The Swiss have a reputation for quality, order and timeliness. They have a system and that system works; partly because they set boundaries. Even in service.

One more story…
When we were in Zurich, we went into a restaurant. They said they could seat us, but we only had one hour. To underscore this rule, they gave us a card to remind us when we had to leave. We understood the rules. The service was super-fast; the server understood the rules as well.

The food was delicious and we finished in thirty minutes. What did we do then? We had an hour and only spent half of it. So, we ordered another entree, which we split, and another round of beers. That food also came quickly. After we finished that round, we saw we still had another fifteen minutes. So, we ordered two desserts and two cappuccinos and we paid our bill with three minutes to spare! Oh, what fun. And the restaurant increased our tab by 40% because they set boundaries. We left feeling like we won a prize. Next time, we’ll beat that three minutes.

How this differs from American service
One of the cultural expectation that is hamstringing US companies is this: Companies say “do whatever it takes to satisfy the customer.” The problem is that people — both the company and their customers — don’t know what that means.

Service with boundaries not only helps associates understand what they can and cannot do to help customers, but also the companies themselves. When they know the rules, customers will never be disappointed. The problem comes when everyone has different expectations of what the experience should or shouldn’t be.

Creating alignment in your organization begins and ends with the customer. But you and your associates are the bond, the glue that very specifically defines the perfect customer experience for everyone to see.

And then measure the heck out of it. And be willing to change if needed.

SERVICE WITH BOUNDARIES is a service mark of ICC/Decision Services


  • Gerard McLean

    So timely! As I was reading this post, literally, a call came in from Bobby Kramig @coachkramig, the head soccer coach for the Miami Redhawks (Disclaimer: we do his website) Last year, he decided that his team was going to be made up of women who were single-mindedly into the game of soccer. They were going to be told EXACTLY what it took to play at the collegiate Division I level as he was tired of sugar-coating offers to entice players to play there and then having half the team wash out. “The toughest team you’ll ever love” is the tag line he uses and he is so fiercely honest with recruits that even the parents get a bit scared. A lot of girls select themselves out, but the ones who say “yes” know the expectations; they know the rules.

    And he had a winning season this year; the first in a long time. They were finalists at the MAC which is the same as making it to the Final Two in basketball. Pretty dang awesome. Next year, I suspect he will have an even better season that causes him a lot less stress.

    So, I referred him to this blog post, right after he asked if we could quick make some unscheduled changes to the camp map and could we do it in 20 minutes because he had to send an email out today….

    It’s a process.

    But the idea of service with boundaries I think is going to be a trend as more and more businesses get squeezed to do more on phantom resources.

  • Joseph Mahar

    Having been in the Retail Industry for 35 years, our mission was to ensure always that the customer experience started at the curb. This set the tone for our guests and their experience.
    The easy functions were the excitement, newness and cleanliness of the store. The fun function was the entire staff, starting with the greeters and sellers, working together to ensure that each customers’ wants were satisfied and memorable. The result was the most effective and inexpensive means to drive sales.
    In my opinion, Ruth Chris Steakhouse and Publix Market, here in Mobile do an exceptional job at makimg a difference in two very competitive arenas.