I’m often told by potential clients – in answer to the question, ‘on what basis do you compete for customers?’ – that ‘customer service is our point of difference’.

In almost all cases service is NOT a competitive advantage. In fact, this answer is normally a tacit admission of a complete absence of one!

Let’s begin by defining ‘customer service’. My take is that the term refers to the quality of the interface between product (or service) and customer. In other words it’s a reference to how easy, or difficult – or pleasurable, or painful – it is for a customer to do business with an organisation.

So, what are customers looking for in a ‘customer interface’? Are they looking for pleasure, for friendship, for entertainment, for love … ?

Let’s face facts. In most cases customers are looking for an interface that is free of pain, free of effort, free of uncertainty, and free of friction. In fact, I suspect, in most cases, the ideal customer interface is one that’s invisible!

So here’s the thing. If the ideal customer interface is the one that is – at least from the customer’s perspective – invisible, how the heck can you compete on the basis of customer service? How can your customer service be *more* invisible than that of your competitors’?

Right about now, I suspect you’re busy of thinking of companies with super-efficient customer interfaces to prove me wrong – like Dell, perhaps; or banks with their automatic-telling machines; or fast-food outlets’ driveway service?

And you’d be right, in a sense. It’s true that these – and many others, I’m sure – are fine examples of organisations that find ways to make it easier for their customers to transact with them.

But, do you really propose that the key to Dell’s success is customer service? Of course not. It’s so much more than that. Dell’s difference – and that of the other examples referenced – is not a cosmetic add-on. It’s a structural difference. The Dell product (using the term to relate to the entire service offering) is fundamentally different from that of its competitors.

So, if you think your customer service is your competitive advantage, think again. It’s healthier to recognise the requirement to reengineer your service offering than it is to kid yourself that you can out-compete your competitors by ensuring you always answer the phone on the third ring!

As Ries and Trout like to say: it’s better to be different than it is to be better.