Business executives juggle a lot of responsibilities, from pleasing customers and engaging employees to watching the bottom line. And with so many moving parts and competing priorities, something’s bound to give. Too often, what suffers is the quality of service that businesses deliver to their customers.

The culprit is often executives’ well-intentioned desire for the business to be great at everything, says Frances Frei, a professor of service management at Harvard Business School and author of “Uncommon Service: How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business.” Here, Frei discusses why great service is so rare, the problem of “exhausted mediocrity” — and a lesson in bravery that every executive could learn from general contractors:

What do you tell field service leaders, or the C-suite generally, about the importance of service in today’s so-called experience economy?

Customers want a great experience. Employees want to deliver a great experience. And yet the act remains too rare for any of us to remain comfortable. When we look at why, it’s not a lack of effort. It’s actually not a lack of attention. It’s that we’re trying to be, and asking our employees to be, great at too many things. Organizations that try to be great at everything end up with exhausted mediocrity. Organizations that have reliable excellence are the ones that are not only optimized to be great at some things, but they also have the courage to be bad at others.

What I would say to executives is that you need the courage to be bad in the service of great. Particularly in a competitive market, when we try to win on all fronts, we actually end up being similar on all fronts and exhausted on all fronts. It’s much better to pick the few places where we’re going to win and have the courage to understand that that means there will be a few places where we’re going to lose. It’s the latter part that’s hardest for the senior executives but easy for the front-line employees. It’s the senior executives who get in the way.

Is service one of the things that companies must be great at, even if it’s to the detriment of other business areas?

I take as my role model general contractors who, by and large, are deeply comfortable in their own skin. I think it’s because every time they’ve ever handed me a business card, on the back was a triangle that read, “Cost, quality, speed: pick two.” They didn’t pretend they could be in a competitive market better than everyone on cost, quality and speed. They didn’t think it was noble to try.

Frances Frei

Frances Frei

Cost, quality and speed are three dimensions of service. It’s probably closer to pick the dimensions you want to be great at and reverse-engineer what that means you have to give up. Let the general contractors be our guide.

How can executives imbue service excellence into the company culture?

In general, excellence comes from design, and it comes from culture. The design part is that in order to be great, you have to be bad. And the courage to be bad is what’s in short supply. On the culture side, the first thing to think of is why do you want a strong culture, whether it’s a culture about service or a culture about improvement?

The reason is because a strong culture guides employees’ discretionary behavior, even in [executives’] absence or when they confront a novel situation. Employees are making hundreds of discretionary decisions all day, every day. A strong culture ensures those decisions are guided by our thinking for the organization and, frankly, are similar across employees. Culture is meant to guide discretionary behavior.

If I want a culture of service or of customer-centricity, the question I have to ask myself is, “How can I crawl into the minds of my employees and get them to believe that we think about the customer first?” What I can’t do is tell them in the morning I want you to be efficient at all expense, and in the afternoon I want you to do whatever it takes to satisfy the customer. I’m not guiding discretionary behavior. I’m giving mixed signals.

How do you know if that culture is working?

I want the culture to be so good that the decisions they make are the decisions I would want them to make. I don’t want to blame them for getting it wrong, but I know my culture is working when employees know the right thing to do because the culture guided them, even if it’s a novel situation.