Good and great: Choices that shape customer experience

by Marc Sokol on September 20, 2011

Perhaps you know the phrase, “Good is the enemy of great”.

Popularized in recent years by Jim Collins, the phrase suggests that satisfaction with just being good keeps us from achieving really great things.

And taken as a touchstone for guiding customer experience, this can easily show up within the vision and call to action for customer-centricity of some organization.

Guess what?

Great is also the enemy of good enough!

That’s right; sometimes good enough is well, good enough.

Somewhere someone reading this is rolling his or her eyes right now. Don’t we say, “good enough for government work”, as a way of referring to work of limited quality?

Great and good enough can each be the right measure of what is needed, depending on the situation. And different stakeholders often land on opposite ends of the issue.

Consider this situation:

The R&D department produces both product and process innovation. They support the operations and commercial divisions of the same company who, in turn, work directly with customers.

R&D, by nature looks to the future and in this company represents a response to ‘the innovator’s dilemma’, creating the next generation of products that no customer is directly asking for at this time.

The operations and commercial divisions, who are by nature very present focused, look to R&D to tweak products and engage their scientific talents toward tangible process innovation to which their customers resonate.

But R&D time is a fixed resource and therein sets the stage for the fight between great and good enough:

An R&D manager recently told me, “the last 20% of the research takes as long as the first 80%. Our scientists and engineers don’t stay engaged unless they can work on that last 20%.” Can you see how ‘great’ is the motto underlying their expectations?

A commercial manager from the same firm had different view: “in the time they want to spend on perfecting those projects, we could be working on client-facing needs. They are wasting our company time”. Can you see how ‘good enough’ is the motto underlying his expectations of the R&D group?

The answer isn’t to side with ‘great’ nor is it to side with ‘good enough’. The answer comes from asking these questions:

• “When and where do we need to be great?”
• “What do we give up in the pursuit of being great in this particular way?”
• “What does good enough allow us to also focus upon?”
• “How and when might good enough not actually be good enough for the aspirations we have?”

As for my client, most likely they will end up with a shorter list of strategic projects for which the added 20% of research time is protected. Perhaps they and their line counterparts will discover how flexible resourcing allows more timely support of immediate customer opportunities and sustained focus on long-term projects. Perhaps they will together learn how to balance great with good enough.

It’s great customer service when a bank teller or check out agent strikes up a conversation with the customer in front of them, inquires about their other needs, and take on a promotional role for the business.

But when there is a long line of other customers impatiently waiting to check out and get on with their day, then a pleasant demeanor while efficiently moving the customer along is good enough customer service.

Where have you seem companies balance ‘great’ with ‘good enough’ to maintain the right level of customer experience?

BestCustomerConnection, by Marc Sokol

Good to great, Jim Collins
The innovator’s dilemma, Clayton Christensen
• Beta-think, by Jim Jarvis. In End Malaria (Michael Bungay, Ed)

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

James Lawther September 20, 2011 at 4:34 pm

Marc, having worked for a number of large multinationals and sat in countless meetings where ideas are rejected, benefits cases debated and strategic reprioritisation is practiced I can’t help but think that any kind of activity that delivered “marginally better” would be “good enough” to be classified as “great”.

Thanks for the post, a good point.

Marc Sokol September 20, 2011 at 9:01 pm

Thanks for comment James. And to your point, that is why the engineers become jaded if what they think is an 80%, barely good enough level, is called ‘great’ by others who really believe the 80% solution is great.

maz iqbal September 21, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Marc, whilst I get the point that you are making, I am not necessarily in agreement with you.

Motorola made good enough handsets. Then Nokia came along and made better handsets and dominated the market. Along came Steve Jobs and Apple and they made a great handset/ecosystem/experience and now Apple dominates the market.

Talking about Apple I read a similar story about how Steve Jobs insistence on great not just good enough meant that he went against the whole team that was due to launch the Apple Mac. The team wanted one colour – it was good enough according to the team – and it made manufacture and inventory management easy. Steve insisted that they offered it in many colours because good enough was not good enough by Steve Jobs. Good enough by Steve Jobs was a great customer experience and nothing less.

Most leaders, managers, workers and companies are bland because they settle for good enough. A few stand out because good enough by their standards is great by the standards of the masses.

Incidentally, how do you want to be remembered? Simply as having lived a good enough life and created good enough work? Or would you rather be remembered for having lived a great life and made a great impact on your family, friends, colleagues, community and indeed the world?

All the best

Marc Sokol September 21, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Hi Maz,

Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I fully agree with you that visionaries, and I often seen researchers, scientists and engineers in that category, see good enough as the enemy of great. And they live for great. It’s how they want to be remembered and why they choose to do what they do.

And there are times when maximizing service for one simply means that service will not be available for another client. We see this in clinics where the demand far outstrips the capacity to deliver. No on wants to see a dentist stop short of filling a cavity that has just been drilled (ouch!), but when you are in the waiting room with an emergency of your own, you are hoping for some type of triage that allows you to get served in a timely manner. It’s all a matter of balancing multiple concurrent needs.

Creating a great product vs. a good enough product may be a different dynamic than good enough vs. great service. I fully see your point about Jobs and the Apple Mac (which I am writing on this moment); I wonder if I would be as happy with the customer experience I have at the Apple stores if they only had 25% of the staffing they typically have and if I couldn’t get to speak with anyone with less than an hour wait.

Let’s continue the dialogue.


Adrian Swinscoe September 22, 2011 at 6:00 am

Hi Marc,
I can see how there is a difference between good and great and why we need to pay attention to that.

However, I, like you, have an issue with ‘good enough’ as it implies to me that inherent within that statement is that it is not really good at all but is only good enough for the people concerned. Whilst I understand that there are differences in perspectives, incentives, alignment, function, focus etc etc…….Here’s the thing for me: a lot of small deficits (or things being only good enough) along a supply chain or production process can add up to a huge delta at the end with no one able to pin point where the problem lies.

As far as I am concerned, good enough should never be good enough.

Adrian Swinscoe recently posted..The Shawshank Redemption the most viral product and best example of word of mouth marketing ever?

Marc Sokol September 22, 2011 at 7:35 am

Hi Adrian,

I completely agree with how you see this — “for want of a nail...”. Little compromises add up along the service delivery chain.

AND there are also examples of where rigid adherence to a specific standard will also compromise customer service experience. Years back Sutton and Rafelli demonstrated in a research study that customers often prefer to see a check out agent make pleasant conversation with them and the person in front of them on line. However when there are several people in line in front of them, customers don’t want to see the check out agent making what appears to be longer than necessary conversation (even though the time spent per customer was the same). It all depends from where you stand. Of course if the check out agent has only one set of guidelines, as in “always strike up a conversation with the person as you ring up their goods”, then they will be insensitive to the larger context of customer service as experienced by many customers (and not just the person in front of them). By the way, there are several ways the check out agent can productively address the situation presented.

For me the story means we have to ask where conventional one-dimensional customer service wisdom ends and where contingencies of action begin.

It’s actually the same thing at an organizational level, just harder to parse out when each stakeholder sees the world from just their own point of view. The R&D groups most certainly will not produce the next equivalent to a MacBook for their industry if they go with an 80% solution. And the commercial group won’t believe they are able to provide great customer service for their immediate clients if the R&D folks are unavailable when needed or to the full extent they would like to see R&D deployed on short-term tweaks of the products instead of long-term research.

Where’s the win-win out of this situation?


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