I’m sure you’ve attended one of those seminars where a self-proclaimed expert wows the audience with his or her tales of ‘awesome customer service’.

Have you ever wondered whether the long-term success of a business really does rest in the hands of grinning bellhops, airline stewards who forward-guess your every need, and receptionists who answer telephones religiously on the third (no not the second) ring?

I guess, on the surface, it all makes perfect sense. Happy customers return and tell a friend or two. Unhappy customers spend their money elsewhere, infecting all around them with their tales of discontent.

My argument is not that customer service is unimportant – I’m sure horrendous customer service would, given time, kill any business. I do believe, however, that it’s unwise to regard customer service as a panacea. Furthermore, I question the contribution that pep talks and endless customer service training actually make to customers’ ultimate perception of service quality.

For some companies, customer service is a key component of their competitive advantage. If you are selling a product that has been commoditised by market forces, you cannot compete on product attributes. Your competitor, after all, sells the same product. Your only option is to convince the market that you offer the lowest ‘total cost’.

Now total cost is an amalgam of ‘ticket price’, ‘lifetime cost of ownership’ and ‘convenience’. Assuming you have limited control over the first two factors (and we all know the dangers of competing on price), the only component of total cost that provides you with room to manoeuvre is ‘convenience’. And this is where customer service is important.

The primary objective of customer service should be to provide your customers with an efficient and dependable interface with your products and services – to make doing business with you as effortless as possible. Every facet of your business should be designed with this efficient and dependable customer interface in mind. Customer service should be built into your product, your distribution process, your operational procedures and even your promotional activities.

Because customer service is of strategic significance, its delivery should be systemised and actively managed – just as your manufacturing and accounting processes are. Pre-programmed, system-driven service initiatives will add more value to your relationships with customers than the random acts of extreme benevolence around which customer service folklore is based!

Now, consider this. What if your company does not sell a commodity? What if your product or service is differentiated to the point where it is not available elsewhere? Consider Pfizer with its much-acclaimed drug, Viagra. Intel with its latest Pentium microprocessor. Or Porsche with its lovable Boxster convertible. What role does customer service play in a customer’s decision to purchase these products? That’s right, next to none. (Remember how Telecom thrived for years inspite of appalling customer service – until deregulation was forced upon it.)

If your product or service is differentiated, your primary focus should be to keep it that way. Don’t spend too much time worrying about whether your telephone is answered on the second or third ring. (Just make sure it is answered!)

And if you’re selling a commodity, yes, customer service is important. But you’ll get better results building systems that ensure an efficient, dependable customer interface (McDonalds-style – would you like fries with that Madame?), than you will locking your front-line staff away with a guru to chant the ‘awesome customer service’ mantra!