Celebrity Cruises

The good intentions that will kill your business

March 28, 2012: 11:31 AM ET

Whether it's trying to be great at everything or giving great service away for free, there are plenty of ways in which the best intentions spell business failure.


Bank of America's biggest problem may be that it's trying not to disappoint anyone right now.

By Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, guest contributors

FORTUNE -- The world is desperate for good service. Companies that get service right – see Southwest and Zappos – are rewarded with profitable growth and devoted customers. And companies that get it wrong are relentlessly punished. Bank of America's persistent presence at the very bottom of the rankings for customer satisfaction is one such example.

There are powerful incentives to serve customers well, so why is service excellence still so rare?

Here's part of the problem: good intentions. It turns out a central barrier to service is not backward thinking and callous management. More often than not, it's the very human desire to want to do the right thing. BofA's biggest problem may be that it's trying not to disappoint anyone right now.

The bank's not alone. When it comes to service, below are three good intentions with consistently bad outcomes:

1. Trying to be great at everything

Great service providers tend to over-deliver on the things their customers value most, and under-deliver on the things they value least. Patients at the Mayo Clinic can get same-day appointments, but in exchange for that exceptional access, they must give up control over which physician they see. It's a deal that anyone with an urgent, complex medical issue – Mayo's sweet spot – is more than happy to make.

MORE: Big Data won't solve your company's problems

These kinds of strategic tradeoffs are built into great service models, and no one apologizes for them. Southwest Airlines (LUV) shamelessly refuses to feed you a meal and transfer your bags, because that's precisely what allows them to deliver cheap, frequent flights – the things their customers really want.

If Southwest tried to be great at everything, if it tried to be the low-price airline with a tricked-out, high-touch cabin experience that flew anywhere in the world multiple times a day, the model wouldn't work. The company would end up losing money while being mediocre at everything, which describes the trajectory of most of the major airlines.

Bank of America now seems to be pushing itself on every aspect of its retail offering, with predictably disappointing results. It's trying to win on cost, convenience, product scope and friendly service, a strategy that's captured in its epic name: a bank for all of America can't let anyone down, on anything. More

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