Competition is more fierce and more global than ever before. Whether we are talking about working capital for growing companies, medical services for women, or guiding river rafting trips. 

There are more and more companies out there competing for every customer. So how does a small business win? What is the thing that will really set you apart… why will customers choose you?

I think there are three basic important categories of good service:

The Product 
Whatever your core offering is, it has to be good. It has to be valuable, reliable and well-priced. This is hard to do, yes, but usually our greatest competencies are in this area. Most of us spend most of our time and energy making sure this part of what we do delivers to high standards. 

Good service distinguishes itself from poor service with good old-fashioned honesty. No tricks, no re-trades, no important provisions hidden in fine print. Nothing done with intent to deceive. This sounds easy, but it is not. When competitive pressure heats up, there will always be competitors out there ready to play games in the integrity category to win the next deal. With any single new opportunity, this is a hard thing to fight. There is no way to argue, “but I am honest and they are not”… Even if you know it’s true it is always a losing argument because it comes off as self-serving. Integrity is demonstrated, not argued. And now and then you will lose business in the short run to competitors who compromise their integrity. You just have to remember that reputation is built over time but lost in moments. You just have to resolve to maintain high integrity and stick to your principles. Now we come to what I think is the hardest part of service. It is the secret sauce that takes a company from being “good” to being “great”.

Patience and Empathy 
When I was a young consultant in New York, my first great mentor at Bankers Trust Company once said to me, “Joe, you won’t really be grown up until you have children”. I remember being just a little insulted that in my mid-thirties, my boss did not think I was “grown up” (Man, was he right on that point!). But like most words of great wisdom, his message stung and puzzled enough to keep me thinking about it for decades. Not until years later, raising our later-in-life daughter, did I begin to understand what he was talking about and how it might apply to business. 

Kids are the ultimate test of patience and empathy. Your children seem to instinctively know when you are at your most vulnerable. You are exhausted, worried about stuff, filled with self-doubt and they deliver a zinger that really tests your maturity. Their skills in this regard peak in the teen years. How do you handle it? Do you go over the top, losing your temper and saying hurtful things that incite a pattern of escalation? Who wins that battle? Right. Nobody.  

Business is no different. These hyper-competitive times are just like the stresses of being a young bread winner raising a family. You get all hunkered down caring deeply about creating and delivering your product, keeping the quality up, the errors down, making enough money, etc. And when your client or prospect says or does something insensitive, how do you react? It is so easy to lose patience and begin that negative cycle of escalation that happened to me too often with my teenage daughter. 

In the corporate world, this human nature tendency to lose patience and empathy is aggravated by what I call “The Headquarters Effect”. There is the team in the HQ. They work together every day. They see each other and interact face to face. As human beings, that automatically establishes an understanding and trust that is not extended to others who are not part of that home office team. Experts say 80% of human communication is non-verbal, right? So customers and even remote employees, have to swim upstream against the HQ Effect. It is so easy for an “us versus them” mentality to develop. The natural tendency is great for the HQ team to interpret outside actions and communications with distrust and suspicion. 

This is where great management can influence the shift from good to great service. We have to be ever aware of the HQ Effect and lead our team to always remain patient and empathetic. 

My oldest and best friend is a very successful investment banker in New York. Over the years away with him on skiing or golf trips we love to share, I have had the good fortune to listen in on some of his deal negotiations. I remember after one conference call he had taken from the car, I commented that one of the other bankers prominent in that call was clearly trying to manipulate the deal inappropriately and I asked how my friend could remain so calm about it. My friend answered, “No, he is not acting in bad faith. This is a very big transaction, he is under a lot of pressure and he is letting that get to him a little bit. I believe that most people want to do the right thing and will get there if you understand but don’t over-react to their anxieties and just continue to communicate clearly, thoroughly and patiently.” 

What an amazing lesson! This is not saying the customer is always right. This just says that we should try very hard to put ourselves in their shoes. We should try never to lose patience. We should take great care to communicate thoroughly and clearly. And we should maintain the perspective that their intentions are good.

To show this kind of empathy is very hard to do for most of us. It requires tremendous self-discipline and maturity. However, I believe it is the best way to be sure that a good product combined with good integrity adds up to great service and wins more and more loyal customers.  And it even works with teenagers!