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Customers, processes and bureaucracy

1 September 2014  

Giving a poor service isn’t an option as it will lose you customers you’ll find hard to win back, warns John Bowen.


A couple of things about customer experience have inspired this week’s musings, one of them personal and the other through something on TV.

The personal experience is with one of our energy providers and represents the depths to which process management and regulation can drive things.

The other was from watching BBC Two’s Hotel India, a documentary series going behind the scenes of India's oldest and most famous hotel, the luxury Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai.

In the hotel the philosophy that guests were gods may be influenced by cultural thinking in that specific instance, but there is no reason why it could not be transported anywhere, and some of what was shown were things that we once did here in the UK in many places, but have now largely turned our backs on.

My electricity provider may have some well-meaning employees in its problem resolution team, but if it does they are hampered by having to work to scripted contact with customers and multi-layered processes.

The results of this way of working are immensely frustrating to customers, which somewhat defeats the object of resolving their problem and can’t be much fun for the employees.

Money is a factor, of course, because the hotel’s prices are high-end and in such circumstances you can afford to push the boat out. But the service ethic was driven more through the pride with which their people took in their jobs, the application of exacting standards and allowing the employees some freedom of action in serving the guests.

Good service need not be more expensive than poor service even if you only look at the direct costs; you are still paying people, but if is the tone set by the leadership that makes the difference. Beyond that the better the service, the greater the loyalty and retention will be in customer terms and that translates to revenue. Poor service loses you customers and you have to work harder to replace them.

Part of the problem for the electricity supplier in my example is that it has to be able to demonstrate to the regulator that it has worked within whatever rules are set out. It is one of the stupidities of de-nationalisation that in deregulating an industry the first thing we seem to do is to set up a regulatory office. We just love bureaucracy, and although it is necessary, even essential, at times it is all too often applied without any thought about whether there are genuine benefits for the consumer.

I like processes; they give some backbone to work around, but if you have too many they will stifle any creativity and make the organisation too rigid. Good structures need to be able to flex or they will break. And the same applies to organisations.

Getting the balance right comes from good leadership, and sometimes that has to be leadership that is outside of the organisation. Government-driven bureaucracy, in any form, rarely really helps to deliver good service and the utilities sector is a good example of how abysmal things can get. Fortunately, there are still places where their stifling tendrils haven’t reached and people can make their own difference.

John Bowen is an FM consultant