This is our 2nd Small Business Book Club post, where our team reads a book and identifies how key takeaways apply to our small business and may enhance yours. Here is how two brilliant women, the authors of Uncommon Service, determined that less is more in business!

An intriguing list of book recommendations in Scaling Up (our first club pick) includes Uncommon Service, How to Win by Putting Customers at the Core of Your Business, by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss.

Frei, a Harvard Business School professor, and Morriss, a business executive, teamed up to make the case for an organizational design model that demands tough choices.

Here is the essence of their research: According to the Uncommon Service model, business trade-offs pay off.

This means designing a blueprint to reflect the core values of the business and figuring out what services can be trimmed away. Core values are a reflection of who we are and they tell the world what we will do AND what will not do. A values-based blueprint translates into simplified service offerings!

Yet, it can be tough to say, hey, what can I let go of? As business owners, we can do everything!…right? Nope. 🙂

Frei and Morriss share this insight: “In our experience, the number one obstacle to great service—number one by a long shot—is the emotional unwillingness to embrace weakness.”

Strategic choices to excel in some respects and to “underperform” in others may enhance success. Maybe the secret is to avoid thinking of these choices as a sign of weakness because, by dropping those weaker areas, they will let your strengths shine!

Here are some famous examples taken from large companies (the same principles apply to service-based business of all sizes):

Commerce Bank

  • Strengths: Convenient hours & friendly service.
  • Trade-off: Terrible interest rates. (Incredibly, this striking choice wasn’t bad for business!)


  • Strengths: Experiential destination & budget-friendly. Swedish meatballs!
  • Trade-offs: Product quality, assembly, distance to store.


  • Strengths: Connecting donors directly to clients in developing countries.
  • Trade-offs: Donor services like education and recognition events.

Southwest Airlines

  • Strengths: Low fares & friendly service.
  • Trade-offs: Limited network & on-board amenities.

How to apply Uncommon Service to your own business?

By realizing your inherent strengths and using those to determine service priorities. (Knowing your personality type helps too!)

  1. Make a list of the attributes of your service that you think clients care about the most. Consult with your employees or a trusted advisor if you are a solopreneur.
  2. Rank the amenities from most important to least important to your target market. This represents the internal process of mapping attributes.
  3. Incorporate client feedback through a formal survey or through casual conversations.

There may be some surprises in what you thought was most important to clients and what actually is.

There is a Service Design Tool available on the Uncommon Service site.

Getting the service design right is one big piece of the pie, another is creating a culture that aligns with the model! Now that you’ve made the design choices, the organizational culture completes the picture in both branding and in the real lives of your people.

Our example of design + culture

To use our own example, here is a sampling of EPW Small Business Law’s Core Values, which also represent our strengths:

  • We help business owners feel calm and capable.
  • We are creating a company founded on respect, flexibility, and the inherent value of every individual.

What are our trade-offs? We are an online law firm that embraces location independence and work that fits our lifestyle.

One characteristic of valuing our own lifestyle and “calm” is that client phone calls are always scheduled in advance. This ensures that clients plan ahead and that the rhythm of our workflow is not interrupted by issues that may be important, but that are not necessarily urgent.

The same is true for in-person meetings— we simply don’t do them because they can be a waste of time (driving, waiting, driving again) and it is more efficient for everyone to stay put and communicate online. In other words, we have created a culture where our experience is the same as what we strive to provide— a calm and respectful experience.

Elizabeth, our founder, was featured in the Wall Street Journal article How to Build a Business That Fits Your Lifestyle addressing these exact trade-offs that are the hallmark of our culture.

Establishing business boundaries to the benefit of a healthy life balance is a growing trend!

Deliberate design trade-offs, or in our case healthy boundaries, ensure both employees and customers have clear expectations and a positive experience.

These are essential ingredients for success and sustainability at any stage of business and particularly before growing. For more on healthy (and crucial!) business boundaries, Elizabeth did a video series 10 Days to Business Boundaries.

What’s your version of a good experience for yourself, your team, and for your clients, thanks to trade-offs or boundaries? Talk to us on Facebook or Twitter and let us know!

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