What is ‘Good’?

Fans of Only Fools & Horses will remember Dell-Boy’s great line to the supermarket check-out girl, “Did you sue them?” When asked who, he replied “The Charm School!” And many of us will have found ourselves in circumstances when we would have loved to use the same sarcastic wit.

Good customer service is one of those things that is not always easy to define but, when we receive it, it is so apparent; and when we don’t receive it, it is just as tangible. So, why is it so hard to deliver?


One reason would be that it is measured by the recipient and, what works for one will not always work for another. As a result, the tendency is for many organisations to design out variance and to standardise customer experience, or service delivery. The consequence is that most people then receive acceptable service, without it ever being a great experience.

However, in the worst examples, customers get less than acceptable service because of this standardisation, and this is the premise upon which Systems Thinking builds a case to deliver improvements.

Another reason for the inability of organisations to deliver quality customer service is that they can lose sight of their purpose and, when this happens, those within the organisation lose their direction.

I dropped a colleague off at York Railway Station last January and, rather ironically, whilst waiting for the rush-hour traffic to permit my onward journey, I heard on the radio about a planned strike by the RMT in Scotland. As a result, rail passengers north of the border were likely to experience difficulty in travelling on two days in the week leading up to Christmas.

“Planning a strike at that time of year pays scant regard to those whom they all serve and both management and unions, in my opinion, are all accountable for ensuring that those customers are served.”

Now, as ever, it is extremely unlikely that we will be availed of the true facts about the dispute leading to the strike, so I would be a little foolish to pass too much judgement. It appears to be a dispute about a ticket inspector who challenged a passenger with an incorrect ticket and reduced the passenger to tears; Scotrail have now dismissed the inspector. On the face of it, a very difficult case to resolve, especially if the inspector was merely doing the job he was employed to do.

RMT 2My point is that these strikes – which are still planned as I write – will, and I quote the RMT, “cause massive disruption”. Surely everyone working in that industry knows that the very purpose for their employment is the service of their customers? Planning a strike at that time of year pays scant regard to those whom they all serve and both management and unions, in my opinion, are all accountable for ensuring that those customers are served. Whatever your politics, I’m afraid that using this dispute as a reason to restrict the level of service to customers at this time is unacceptable.

Meanwhile, in the Benefits arena, I need not remind you that we have some huge and very difficult human challenges ahead of us! However, what I would urge everyone to remember is why we are here, and why we must deliver good quality service in the face of these challenges.

In a general despatch from the Institute of Human Development in 2006, they said: “Keep yourself strong through business and organisational interference and keep people focussed on the purpose of what they are doing. Purpose is the crowning responsibility of those of you who seek to be leaders in any field – purpose is the answer to the question ‘why’ and, therefore, the driving energy in organisational change and growth…Companies and organisations that do have a clear sense of purpose thrive more easily than those who don’t.”

So, for those of you with management responsibility, you need to communicate with your teams the clear, unambiguous purpose for your existence. And, if you think you have, do it again!

Whilst it is going to be far from easy, it is often through adversity that people work their best. Everyone involved with the service has a duty to be professional and responsible about how to tackle the challenge that faces us.

That responsibility could be articulated as follows:

  • Politicians…to make considered decisions about where their service is going without prevaricating to score political points;
  • Senior Management…to convert that ‘strategy’ into workable ‘tactics’ and provide effective support to middle management;
  • Middle Management…to disseminate that vision through effective operational communication and to support front-line staff to deliver;
  • Service operatives…to remain professional, customer and outcome focused.

Many of us will face an uncertain future, but local authorities have a duty to place their residents at the heart of everything they do.

Simply answering the phone in a set number of rings, or meeting a customer within a set number of minutes, may no longer be the most effective way of measuring customer satisfaction. Most people are accepting of getting good quality service, even if it takes a little longer. The key is understanding what ‘good’ looks like!