Want to know a secret about customer service?
25 February 2013
Public sector managers who want to deliver great service must unlearn many of the things they currently believe and start putting people – not simply costs – at the very centre of their thinking, says John Seddon
Herewith the secret to great service: give people what they need. I can hear the guffaws; it is an absurd idea to the conventional-minded manager, believing that this could only drive costs up. Schooled to protect their budgets this would seem to be anarchic. Obsessed with meeting service levels, reducing transaction costs and, in many other ways, focusing on efficiency, the idea would stick in their craw.
Digesting a counter-intuitive truth is aided by unlearning, studying how services don't work and rethinking, discovering how they could work. Take commissioning: a citizen has a health or social care need, the need is assessed and eventually – for it can take a very long time – a service is commissioned, then provided. Boxes ticked. What happens next in many cases is the person re-presents due to failure demand – demand caused by a failure to do something or do something right for the customer. We then go through the same loop – assess, commission, provide... and the person re-presents. It is common to find this repeated nine, 12, even 20 times. It can extend an episode; it can become a whole life.
Studying this phenomenon across all demand into public services reveals fundamental flaws. We think markets will drive efficiency; creating a market for commissioning offers a specification against which providers can pitch a price. But the specifications fail to meet the human, peculiar and particular needs found among those asking for help.
Deeper investigation reveals how service provision goes over and under needs: people receive things they don't need, are given more than they need, or provided with things that are insufficient to meet the need.
When managers get to this place they realise that their preoccupation with driving down unit costs actually serves to drive costs up. It takes time to digest. But digestion is speeded by unequivocal evidence, hard data illustrating predictable patterns of resources expended while generating human misery. Poor quality service is costly. No amount of customer insight, mystery shopping, customer-first training and the rest of the improvement guidance promulgated by Whitehall would have revealed any of that.
But armed as they are with knowledge, managers can discard the plausible flimflam and devote their energy to designing a service that works. Crucial to their endeavour is thorough knowledge of demand – what people need, in their terms. It becomes the crucible for everything that follows. They build a design that is super-sensitive to people, their needs and their context. The design places the individual at the centre of service provision. People who need help are met by people who have the expertise to help them and the services provided are truly tailored. It is fast, friendly and purposeful.
Everyone – citizens, service professionals, providers – is happier, more motivated and more engaged; ingenuity and innovation emerge naturally. And then the big prize is revealed: costs fall out, dramatically. Administration costs fall by tens of thousands, the cost of services provided fall by hundreds of thousands and the cost of failing to meet needs falls by millions. Managers now understand that managing value drives costs out of a system while managing cost only served to drive costs up.
Once over this Rubicon managers eschew the deception of cost management – like transaction channels, activity management, service levels, back-offices and economy of scale – in favour of acting on the system, ensuring that all the things needed to maintain the new design remain in place: continued knowledge of demand, providing expertise to absorb variety, the speedy pulling of expertise to need, the determination of need in context, fast provision of tailored services, and so on; all aided by measures that relate to purpose from the customer's point of view.
Paradoxically, the only roadblock these managers now face is people who think the way they used to. Being human – and forgetting how they learned to change the way they think – managers will explain, illustrate and argue. But often they only learn how hard it is to change a mindset; even evidence showing how such designs improve services and reduce costs by as much as half cuts no ice.
But nothing can shake them from the knowledge that the secret to great service is to give people what they need; they have theory, they know why; and they have method, they know how to do it.
John Seddon is an occupational psychologist and managing director of consultants Vanguard www.vanguard-method.com
This article first appeared in Public Servant magazine