Strategic Mediocrity

At a company offsite last year, I gave a presentation to our customer support leadership team on service excellence. One of the phrases that stuck with everyone was 'being strategically bad' as it pertained to our department. I had just finished reading Uncommon Service, by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss. They argue that striving for all-around excellence leads directly to mediocrity.

Achieving service excellence requires underperforming on the things your customers value least, so you can over-deliver on the dimensions they value most. Decide what trade-offs you will make – where you will do things badly, even very badly, in the service of great – based on deep insight into who your customers are and what they need operationally.

Then be unapologetic about it.

This concept isn't new by any means. Michael Porter wrote about this in Competitive Advantage (1985):

"Being "all things to all people" is a recipe for strategic mediocrity and below-average performance, because it often means that a firm has no competitive advantage at all."

After the presentation, we discussed what our customers valued most and how we could improve in those areas, willfully neglecting some service aspects that customers didn't care for. As Frances Frei explains in the video below, the primary obstacle is not the ambition to be great, but the stomach to be bad.