During a recent "service culture" conversation with several senior bank managers, some commiserated over the fact that our industry is asking more and more of our front-line folks. Almost without fail, these are our lowest-paid and least experienced personnel.

These are also the areas in which we experience the most employee turnover. But at the end of the day, it is primarily this group's efforts that define our organizations' service levels in customers' minds.

Through the years, I've had scores of bankers ask about the "service secrets" of some of their favorite retailers. Some have gone through considerable effort to copy the tactics of their favorite retail businesses as well as those of competing banks.

And that's all great. They shouldn't get hung up on "pride of authorship" of good ideas. The bigger problem, as I see it, is having the discipline to choose and focus on a relatively small subset of activities and then consistently deliver them.

Companies that develop a reputation for great customer service don't do it through endless creativity. They do it through consistency. Sure, surprising customers now and again with unexpected gestures can have positive impact.

But service reputations are built more through consistent experiences.

In fact, few things erode a customer's service perceptions of an organization more than inconsistency. Even the most positive of customer experiences can easily be purged from a customer's memory when his next encounter leaves him scratching his head.

The fact that we exceeded a customer's expectations during his last interaction with us doesn't carry much weight with him when we fail to meet his expectations in a subsequent visit.

And frankly, the more things we ask our front-line folks to focus on during customer interactions, the greater likelihood we'll deliver inconsistent experiences.

Too many people hear that and immediately think that I'm suggesting lowering the service expectations of front-line employees and managers. On the contrary, I suggest that narrowing your service "non-negotiables" to as concise a list as possible requires more thought, commitment and ongoing evaluation from management than giving our teams ever-growing laundry lists of suggestions.

I was reminded of the importance of focus while watching a program on a business channel last week. An interview with (of all people) a political candidate had me nodding in agreement.

This particular candidate had been a successful CEO before deciding to run for office. When asked how she would tackle the myriad challenges her constituency faced, she said she had only three things she would focus on. The interviewer seemed skeptical.

She explained that there are only so many things a person or organization can reasonably expect to do well at any given time. She suggested that you're far better off having 100% commitment to your three most important priorities than having 50% commitment to 10.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we give our front-line teams only three things to focus on. That being said, if you can consistently deliver on even three things, you'll be ahead of most "service providers" these days.

When was the last time you were greeted promptly and with a smile, actively listened to, and thanked by name? That's a pretty short list. It's not very complicated. And yet, most companies would regularly fail that test.

Your list may be different and a bit longer. But one of my favorite (half-joking) comments to senior managers is that their customer service tactics should resemble the directions on a bottle of shampoo.

That strategy is especially beneficial in areas prone to higher turnover, i.e., our front line.

Would your team members be able to quickly list the three to five most important customer service behaviors your organization strives for every day? If you're not sure of the answer, it's likely that they aren't either.

Shorten, simplify, communicate and continually reinforce your own list. You'll end up on more customers' short lists of favorite places to bring their business.

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