A Bakers Dozen

A ‘Bakers Dozen’* refers to the concept many years ago that when an order for one dozen loaves was given to a baker, he would supply thirteen loaves. This on the principle of ensuring the customer got at least what he asked for and a little bit more. It was insurance against short measure since that carried, at the time, severe penalties up to and including death.

This is a concept that has gone by the wayside over the years with the development of the culture in business of giving what could be defined as “the irreducible minimum needed to retain customers” and, over recent decades, the heavy emphasis has been on raising profit margins, not through increase production and a heavy emphasis on customer service but through an ongoing strategy of reducing costs across the board.

While this is good management strategy and is something most boards are across there is also the other side of the coin, one might say, which is working to provide a higher level of customer service. For many businesses lip service is given to customer service and the real McCoy has been very much overlooked or left by the wayside.

This has also resulted in an increase in complaints for many organisations including postings on social media and furious letters to ombudsmen. Complaints are a necessary evil for most businesses and efforts to reduce them are usually made through an effort to placate or downgrade the complainant.

Stable and increasing revenue depend for the most part on repeat business. Repeat business is dependent on customer retention. Customer retention is reliant upon good customer satisfaction.

No customer satisfaction means a drop in customer retention and that means a drop in repeat business and a subsequent drop in gross revenue.

And while it is good governance to set strategy to reduce and minimise costs, this is an incomplete strategy. Customer service can effect a profound change in revenue when done right.

Looking at customer service from the customer’s point of view, what level of service does the customer expect or want?


The customer always expects the best regardless of the product or service offered. The customer does not expect to receive second best service. How many times have you jumped on a plane where it is announced the pilot was one of the second best pilots for the day? Or gone into a supermarket to buy your food and deliberately selected something that was half opened and shoddy looking and close to or past its use by date? Not very often I’m sure.

This immediately tells you the level of service and product quality and delivery you need to maintain in order to have satisfied repeat customers. Directors and managers should be looking to ensure that the company is not giving lip service to customer service to satisfy management but actually going out of its way to provide the best possible service they can to retain customers.

We all understand that customer service is giving the customer what they expect from you, but how many companies understand that excellent customer service is exceeding those expectations?

A couple of examples may help to illustrate the point.

The New York Times best-selling author Steven Levitt wrote an article about how United Airlines turned him into a customer for life in a couple ways. Steven was running late, and unlike other airlines, they actually saved his seat until the last second. On another occasion, United Airlines called him and informed him that his flight was delayed by a few hours, and they saw that he was in the airport. The call went like this: “I see that you’re at the airport and your flight is delayed a few hours. A seat opened up on an earlier flight, so I grabbed it for you in case you wanted it. It leaves in 40 minutes, so you’ll have to hurry.” These two events, Levitt explains, turned him into a life-long customer of United Airlines.**

And another customer, “I had a fault on my phone line so I reported it to my service supplier, who got onto BT Openreach to get the fault fixed. I reported the fault on the Friday morning, my service supplier’s customer service called me back 5 times on the Friday to let me know how they were proceeding with my fault, the fault was fixed on the Saturday and I got 3 calls the next week from my company just checking that everything was working properly again. I considered that brilliant service.”**

It can be a profound change of attitude for some companies to move from giving the ‘irreducible minimal’ needed to finding ways of giving more than expected in order to retain customers. Guess which produces the most loyal customers and best results?

The success of a business most often depends on repeat business and that is only obtainable from satisfied customers. What has this got to do with the Board one might ask?

It can take a board decision to change a culture within a company. Changing from supplying only that which is necessary on a cost effective basis, to an attitude of giving just that little more must often come from the top.

So how do we infuse the culture of the bakers dozen in business today? How do we increase brand loyalty to the point of a customer never leaving or churning from their current to another brand?

By introducing a policy of going that extra mile. That’s how.

Well what does it mean, going that extra mile? It means surprising the customer unexpectedly with a service that shows you care or are interested in them. It means extending customer service beyond the customer’s expectations.

Giving the irreducible minimum service that one can ‘get away with’ is easily perceived by the customer. Customers can feel when they are being fobbed off or given the perfunctionary regulation service.

Going that extra mile is doing more than that. When it is done well, it is impressive and almost guaranteed to ensure brand loyalty and capture a customer forever.

This applies to complaints as well. Instead of viewing complaints as a necessary evil, how about as a stepping stone to increasing customer loyalty and retention?

In short, if you can extend your customer service beyond the customer’s expectations you will have a customer for life.

And that is something any organisation these days would be keenly interested in I’m sure.

* A baker’s dozen, devil’s dozen, long dozen, or long measure is 13, one more than a standard dozen. The oldest known source for the expression “baker’s dozen” dates to the 13th century in one of the earliest English statutes, instituted during the reign of Henry III (1216-1272), called the Assize of Bread and Ale. Bakers who were found to have short-changed customers (some variations say that they would sell hollow bread) could be subject to severe punishment including judicial amputation of a hand. To guard against losing a hand to an axe, a baker would give 13 for the price of 12 in order to be certain of not being known as a cheat. Specifically, the practice of baking 13 items for an intended dozen was insurance against “short measure”, on the basis that one of the 13 could be lost, eaten, burnt, or ruined in some way, leaving the baker with the original legal dozen. The practice can be seen in the guild codes of the Worshipful Company of Bakers in London.
According to the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by Captain Grose, a Baker’s Dozen is “Fourteen; that number of rolls being allowed to the purchaser of a dozen”.