If customer service describes how you are differentiate yourself or your company in the marketplace, then you waste words. Great customer service is assumed.

In the last few weeks, at least half of the business people I met talked about their great customer service.

They aren’t alone. When I have interviewed employees at companies that hired me to help with their marketing, most of them trumpeted their incredible customer service as THE thing to focus attention on. But when I asked for examples, most of the time what they described as great customer service sounded to me like doing the job, nothing more. It also sounded each time like what their competitors would tell me if asked.

If everyone’s doing it, then by definition it can’t be a differentiator.

Don’t get me wrong. Great customer service is essential to any business success. It’s as important as having a way to collect money.

It just can’t be a differentiator because, unless you have a reputation for bad service, we assume you have good service. It’s not our demand. It’s a hallmark of any successful business.

Conversely, if you have bad customer service, you will run out of customers as word of your misdeeds spreads. Lose enough customers and you are out of business. Capitalism handles this situation all too well and all too quickly.

Spotlighting customer service invites the wrong thoughts in customers’ minds. Reinforcing what we expect suggests one of two things, each of which is bad for a business. First, what you think is “great customer service” is probably good or expected customer service to us. Therefore, we question your commitment and your ability to discern vital business information.

Second, calling attention to your supposed great customer service suggests you had bad customer service at some point. We perceive the message to be that you are proud of overcoming this challenge. The problem with that suggestion is it plants the seed that customer service could fail again. Who wants to work with a company that might fail in its customer service?

More often than we want to admit, companies we expect to have great customer service let us down. On some deep, personal level, we fear this possibility each time we commit to a transaction. What if that object I bought online is a knockoff or they never ship it? What if that three-year warranty has so many caveats, hidden in all that fine print none of us ever reads before signing, that we’ll never get our money back? What if that TV ad promising the world supports a company that has no one answering the phone if you have a problem?

The best people to talk about a company’s customer service are its customers; they have instant credibility when they say a company handled things well. Most of us don’t share those stories about the companies we deal with unless the provider goes way above and beyond our expectations. Those stories help differentiate a company. But they are customer initiated and customer generated – always.

If your company is hawking its great customer service, you are really saying nothing at all.

Most meetings don’t matter. While you may dismiss this reality as “part of the job,” think about how 15% of your work time, according to consulting firm Bain & Co, is spent in those time-sucking meeting. Change needs to occur and I have an idea.

But first, we need to be clear about how bad the problem is. For most of the meetings you are called into, being there is no different than being absent, except for the fact that less air and carbon dioxide gets exchanged, fewer eyes get rolled and your doodling of that cool logo you would use if you ever get up the courage to open your own business remains in your mind, not on the notepad sitting blank in front of you.

If you are like most of us, you know as you walk into a meeting – often 3 minutes or so late because the coffee maker wouldn’t work or it took you that long to talk yourself into going because “I have to” —  that you’re about to waste valuable time. It’s time you could be fighting fires (do firefighters have meetings?) or planning or the list could go on and on.

Meetings as Punishment

One person I know scheduled weekly staff meetings (the worst of the worst) for 4 p.m. routinely, figuring that if he was going to waste an hour that the best one to waste was the last one of his work day.

Another person I know attends a Friday afternoon meeting every week, even his vacation weeks, because it’s required. Talk about punitive and counter-productive. No one’s going to bring their A game to a Friday afternoon meeting, where every debate means that much longer until the weekend.

Holding a good meeting these days is challenging. Getting the right time, the right people, the right agenda, the right tone to encourage an open exchange, and on and on. I have coached leaders and teams on these matters.

A New Approach

A few weeks ago, I shared my strategy for creating better meetings on our award-seeking podcast, The Serious Soft Skills Podcast. Compressing meetings to the bare essentials seems to encourage the most effectiveness. I’ve tried stand-up meetings, fewer meetings with longer agendas, more meetings with shorter agendas and various other techniques.

But the Rule of Fours seems to work best. My Rule of Fours suggests that whatever time you are going to devote to meetings, cut it by four. If it’s slated for one hour, then cut it to 15 minutes. If it’s a half hour, then cut it to 7½ minutes. (If it’s a 15-minute meeting, scrap it. Do one-on-one, in-person meetings instead.)

This rule, which I have shared with a few people to good results, works for several reasons. Most importantly, the Rule of Fours shows you mean business. You want to get to the core of the matters at hand. No chit chat, no long stories, no bad jokes, no grandstanding, no crazy PowerPoint presentations. This approach doesn’t even allow for time to dim the lights, which is a guarantee for a bad meeting.

Taming the Meeting Madness

Second, this rule forces you focus on one, maybe two, main topics. Too often, with the exception of a brainstorming meeting where wild ideas are encouraged, teams take on too much in one meeting. It’s all issues on the deck, when focused meetings show success.

Third, if people have booked the hour for a meeting and get out after 15 minutes, they actually might have time to work on their action items from the meeting. Too often we leave meetings frustrated and after planned, which forces us to consign any action items we had at the meeting to later. If we even document them at all.

In our hyper-competitive business climate, wasted time costs us dearly. Making meetings matter again could help you regain the advantage you are seeking against your competitors.