In 2016 the Harvard Business Review published a wonderful paper based on the results of research on more than 10,000 U.S. consumers about their perceptions of nearly 50 U.S.-based companies. The authors had this to say about their main finding: “Products and services must attain a certain minimum level, and no other elements can make up for a significant shortfall on this one.”[i]

This, of course, is reliability – the most important of the 3Rs – other dimensions, like “provides access,” “avoids hassles,” and “saves time” (all of which are very much like responsiveness) are also prominent in this research, but none of them trump meeting customer expectations on a minimum level of quality. Reliability simply means delivering on your core promises.

Here are some examples of what reliability is and how it outplays everything else:

Industry What is most important to you? Ask yourself…
Medical Correct diagnosis, please. Would you be happy with a short wait time and a doctor with a great bedside manner? Yes… but, oops, they don’t diagnose your illness and you stay sick for longer than necessary. What are you thinking now?
Airline Landing on time (and safely!) at the destination. You have an easy check-in and great service on the plane, but your flight is delayed two hours due to the pilot being late and you miss your connection. Are you still feeling upbeat?
Hotel Clean room, peaceful night’s sleep. You stay in a beautiful hotel with personalized, fast service, but the room has a dusty, musty smell and the noise from the street makes it hard to sleep. Does the fact that the valet remembered your name count now?
Consultancy Gives insights or advice that your company can use. A consultant engages you and keeps you informed, building a strong relationship, but their insights and advice don’t quite hit the mark. Would you use them again?
Mobile phone carrier Consistent network to make calls and access data services. How much do you like dropped calls or, worse, no Snapchat connection?
Restaurant The quality of the food. You’re seated at an awesome table near the window, enjoying exquisite service from the waiter, but the food leaves a bad taste in your mouth. How do you feel about that bill now?
University The quality of the education. Would you prefer a friendly professor who is always organized or one who seems scattered but provides deeper learning?
Massage The quality of the treatment. The massage does not live up to expectations, but the RMT is personable and even goes five minutes beyond the treatment time. Would you still be happy with the experience?
Landscaping The superiority of workmanship. Would you want a landscaper who is approachable and completes work on time, but the garden does not look how you hoped or outlined in the plans?

Table 2.1: Power of reliability

Note that for many services, unresponsiveness means that the service may slip into an unreliable territory. If you have to wait so long on hold with a call centre that you give up trying to talk to someone, or if a realtor takes so long to list and sell your house that you miss out on buying another one, well, that is unreliable. Generally, though, most responsiveness is not so extreme.

The point here is that if you are dedicating resources (and we always have limited resources) to being responsive and building strong relationships, but you have not conquered the art of being reliable as possible, then the responsiveness and the relationships pieces will never land as well as you would like. They simply won’t get the shine they deserve.

If you invest time and energy into making sure you are always reliable in terms of accuracy, keeping your key promises, demonstrating competency to build trust, and handling customers’ complaints expertly, then the efficiency with which you deliver the service and the personalization of the experience for the customer will have its maximum impact.


[i] E. Almquist, J. Senior, and N. Bloch, “The Elements of Value,” Harvard Business Review 94, no. 9 (September 2016): 13.

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