Beth Nilssen
October 15, 2012 / Milestones

Do you have the courage to be bad?

This year marks my company’s 30th year in business. Today it’s hard to believe that back in 1982, the idea of a no-appointment, walk-in hair salon was a radical concept! But it was, and our founders had the courage to offer customers something unique: a place where you could walk in and get a haircut. It wasn’t fancy—but that was the point. No appointment, no frills. Just a great haircut.

Well, it was clearly something customers wanted because here we are, celebrating 30 successful years with a birthday party—otherwise known, in the business world, as a convention!

We had fun at the convention and we also spent a lot of time learning from some impressive service-industry experts. Here are my insights from a couple of the presenters: Business consultant Dennis Snow of Snow & Associates, Inc., and Harvard Professor Frances Frei.

Dennis Snow talked about how to lead a culture of service excellence—and he knows of what he speaks, given that he worked for 20 years for one of the most service-focused businesses, Walt Disney World.

Dennis believes that excellent customer service begins with a culture that expects it, and sharing that culture starts during the interview process with prospective employees. Dennis says, “Interviewees are picking up subtle (and not so subtle) clues as to what the culture of the organization truly is, so the interview process should reflect the culture of the organization.” In other words, just as you’re taking notes on the interviewee, the interviewee is also taking notes on you.

MORE: Customer Service Grace Under Pressure

Harvard Professor Frances Frei presented information from her years of research on guiding leaders to compete on excellence by designing, managing and scaling exceptional service firms. She is passionate about something she calls “uncommon service,” the subject of her just-released book, Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business.

Here are some things she said during her break out session that really stuck with me:

“During our research into service-based companies, every customer we talked to wants to receive excellence. Every employee we talked to wants to deliver excellence. So, everyone wants to consume it. Everyone wants to deliver it. And yet it’s so hard to find it.”

“What’s holding you back from delivering excellence and being a great company? Well, well-intentioned people are a big part of it.”

And, perhaps her most powerful comment from the session:

“In order to be great, you have to be bad, and not having the courage to be bad is holding you back.”

When she said this to a room full of salon owners and managers, you could see the look on their faces, as if to say, “What did she just say?” She explained that it’s important—actually, it’s critical—for a business to have “differentiation that matters instead of being good at everything.”

MORE: You can’t be good at everything

This resonated with these franchisees whose business differentiation is being a haircare salon that doesn’t offer everything; what they do offer is accessibility—the freedom to walk in to a salon without an appointment and get an excellent haircut. Great Clips salons don’t do color, manicures or massages like many full-service salons. In the opinion of Professor Frei, it’s critical that we stay true to our roots. “You’re at a moment in time when resisting temptation [to offer more services] is the key to your success.”

Point taken, Professor.

Let me know what you think: What are you willing to be bad at in order to be great at something else?

Beth Nilssen By Beth Nilssen on October 15, 2012
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