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Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson

Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson’s default image

Health Care

Service Quality: How to Sell Air!

We don't know what we got 'til it's gone.

Published: Wednesday, July 8, 2009 - 03:00

The New Yorker magazine featured a cartoon showing a discussion between a salesman and his sales manager. The despondent salesman asked, “I know you’re always telling us to sell the sizzle and not the steak, Mr. Bollinger, but just what is the sizzle of a 90º elbow, flexible-copper fitting?”

Starbucks, Ritz-Carlton, Zappos.com, Lexus, and DisneyWorld have infatuated the marketplace as exemplars of great customer service. Clearly there are principles such organizations have mastered relevant for all enterprises. But, just like our plumbing supply salesman, not every industry is as glamorous as a gourmet coffeehouse, luxury hotel, expensive car, or theme park.

Consider this, you are in charge of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). How would you make the DMV more like a Starbucks and still stay within the state mandated cost controls? How would you make your bank more like a Ritz-Carlton and stay within the razor thin profit margins that characterize today’s financial services industry? As one senior executive said, “No matter how customer-friendly our employees are, our processes are customer-hostile and most are decreed by regulators.”

Buyers today assume the products they purchase will be as promised, the price fair and the process relatively comfortable. These “givens” are a lot like the air we breathe. We take air for granted unless it is removed; adding air, however, does not make us happy campers. If the commercial plane we board lands in the right city, we don’t cheer; but, if it lands in the wrong city, we are upset. We assume banks will be safe, hotels comfortable, and hospitals clean. These “taken for granted” attributes are service air—noticed only when they are absent. Capitalizing on service air can provide a competitive strategy for organizations in a quest of service quality but severely challenged by the stretch.


Consistently doing the fundamentals well can be a potent competitive strategy. This is true when the organization is a part of an industry fraught with hiccups and a less than glowing reputation. Granted, a plain-Jane strategy would flop in some market niches. Imagine paying nose-bleed prices for a room at a hotel that always provided soap and shampoo, a well-lighted parking lot, a quiet setting, and beds that were made daily with fresh sheets. However, such an unadorned strategy at the appropriate price point has worked well for Motel 6, AirTran Airlines, and In-N-Out Burger.

What makes “air-plain” work? It works if your organization excels at taking care of the basics and ensures customers are made aware of the fact. It works as long as the organization is in a sub-par niche with no other enterprise getting service-air perfect plus adding something unique. Unique trumps air, but only if air is done just as customers expect.

Air apparent 

“At Third National Savings Bank you can always count on hassle-free banking.” At first blush, this advertising tagline seems absurd. How could “not beating you up” have competitive advantage? It would be as zany as saying, “Our dry cleaner promises to get your clothes really clean.” Yet, there may be a bright side to this seemingly dark reverse tactic.

The logic of making the basics more apparent is a strategy relevant in a broken market segment. If, for instance, banks in general fill the banking experience with aggravations, then promising to not do that could be perceived as an asset. Southwest Airlines reminds customers of their on-time record because most major airlines frequently arrive late.

"Air apparent" means singling out a service-air feature at which the organization believes it can excel and then reminds customers of that fact. It is the dry cleaner that brags, “Your shirt buttons are always safe with us,” or the movie theater that boasts, “We get a lot of complaints about the smell of our fresh popcorn—from the store next door!” T-Mobil made their billing process (focusing on accuracy, clarity, and timely resolution of problems) the finest in their industry; Publix Grocery did the same thing with the speed of their check-out process.

Air show

Once in a while an organization can take a service-air factor to a high or unexpected level, turning a customer core requirement into a delight factor. The Columbia Tower Club in downtown Seattle is an illustration of "air show." Four of the stalls in the ladies restroom were designed so the commode faced toward the outside of the building, and this exterior wall was floor-to-ceiling window. Since the Club is the top floor of a high-rise building, a visitor sitting on the toilet could enjoy a panoramic view of downtown Seattle. Patrons of the club would naturally assume the ladies restroom would be spotless, comfortable, and well-appointed. They would not expect the club to sport a john with a view.

Taking a core service component and “showing it off” can be a strategy that makes competitors seem antiquated by comparison. When Domino’s Pizza promised pizza delivery in 30 minutes or the pizza was free, they quickly owned the pizza delivery business. Federal Express promised overnight package delivery to be “absolutely, positively there by 10:30 a.m.” Again, they took a service-air attribute and put such a spot light on it that competitors soon had to match it. The power of the air-show strategy is its capacity to enable an organization to leap frog competitors gaining market share very quickly. However, it must be bold enough to create a marketplace buzz and complex enough to preclude competitors from being able to quickly copy it.

Air-plain, air apparent, and air show are solid strategies often able to keep an organization successful for a long time. Sears, Holiday Inn, and Ace Hardware have weathered onslaughts from competitors offering flashier features and more exciting exhibitions. However, history tells us the victories in marketing are ultimately won by the creative destruction of what has been, to make room for the invention of what could be. The ultimate victor will not be the guardian of service air, but the organization that finds a way to both safeguard air and reinvent the package in which it comes.



About The Author

Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson’s default image

Chip R. Bell and John R. Patterson

Chip Bell and John Patterson are customer loyalty consultants and authors of Take Their Breath Away: How Creative Service Creates Devoted Customers (John Wiley & Sons, 2009). They can be reached through www.taketheirbreathaway.com.