The emptiness of excellence

I don’t like excellence. Sure, I like things done well. I like people who are brilliant at things I could never master. But I don’t like the word excellence.

I’ll admit it. My main problem with the word comes from its use in business writing.

‘Delivering business excellence’ — that kind of thing. Or this one I came across in a brochure I rewrote recently: ‘The delivery of customer excellence’.

Once upon a time excellence was a bit of a joke word. ‘Yes, Your Excellence. Of course, Your Excellence. Whatever you say, Your Excellence.’ Only a ruler with a big ego and bigger insecurities would insist on being called your excellence.

I suggest that the word is intrinsically pompous. When JRR Tolkien used it in this sentence: ‘May your beer be laid under an enchantment of surpassing excellence for seven years!’, he was using a cod high register to comic effect.

So when businesses talk about their strategic excellence, their customer excellence, or their business excellence, they sound as though they don’t know what to say.

Because what is business excellence? OK, it’s being very good at business. But what does that mean? Does it mean you’re very profitable, or very good at doing whatever it is you do, or very good at spotting opportunities, or growing faster than anyone else in your sector? We don’t know, because business excellence is an empty phrase. It’s the equivalent of bellowing ‘We’re really really good! Honestly!’

What about ‘the delivery of customer excellence’ – what can this mean? On the face of it, it might mean that the business makes customers into more excellent people. Or possibly the business is really good at acquiring excellent customers. We don’t know, because the language is so mangled.

Sadly, I guess it just means that the business does some really really good things for its customers. But why not say what those good things are? Because they’re not as wondrously impressive as ‘the delivery of customer excellence’? This is pretentious and empty, a frankly monstrous use of English.

Excellence is an excellent example of business speak at its worst: empty words posturing as insightful, authoritative statements. Or am I being too harsh on it? Maybe it’s simply a good word that’s been led astray by the wrong kind of people. Let’s hope that one day it can escape their clutches.