My brother was telling me about an experience he had at a major retailer while he was waiting in line at a cash register. The line was getting long and customers were starting to grumble and complain about the service and why the other cash registers were not open. An announcement came over the intercom asking all associates to help at the cash registers. Within two minutes, two additional cash registers were open and the lines emptied quickly.
This got us talking about the dynamics and the "fine line" of true customer service. The situation was interesting on a couple of levels:
1) The store either had unexpected customer volume, staffing issues or had decided that the best resource allocation was to wait until customers reached a certain level of dissatisfaction/started to complain before allocating resources that were being utilized elsewhere.
2) The store felt they had a resource allocation process in place that could quickly respond to customer need.
3) The store was willing to allow for a degree of customer dissatisfaction before assigning resources.
4) The customer overcame the initial dissatisfaction and instead saw the store as someone who responded to customer needs by assigning resources as soon as they saw that there was a customer dissatisfaction situation. A good example of how Customer Service is perception and can always be applied as a positive.
5) The store was maximizing resources while manipulating the fine line of customer service.
The real issue is that real customer service is not about finding the fine line and what is acceptable to your customers and how to maximize limited resources.
Make sure you are committed and define your customer service brand carefully. Inherently building a tolerance level of customer dissatisfaction into your delivery/operational models is the first step down a slippery slope of mixed priorities. Building a strong customer service philosophy is a strategic and tactical challenge -- be sure you are committed. Customer service cannot be changed mid-stream, based on customer opportunities/requirements. Customer service is just that... CUSTOMER SERVICE.
Should you choose to differentiate yourself on the basis of service, then it has got to be about commitment and passion for the customer. As soon as the customer sees tradeoffs in customer service, then you have lost your differentiation on that front.