The good guys and bad guys in customer service

Like each of you, I experience both wonderful and dreadful customer journeys. And like my fellow columnist Sunny Bindra, from time to time I write about them. I enjoy recognising and celebrating the good by name, while venting about those at the other end of the spectrum, usually without revealing their identity.

Today I want to reflect on two experiences where I have found the extremes of good and bad in the same organisation. In each case the good guys heroically tried to protect me from the bad ones. They apologised, they explained, and they comforted me. But there was only so much they could do, as they were not senior or empowered enough to resolve the ridiculous and unnecessary problems created by others.

I felt very sorry for them, and indeed expressed both by sympathy and admiration for their attitude and behaviour, as they tried ever so hard to put a brave face on the indefensible, to be loyal to their employer and to keep me from exploding with rage.

It’s not always that problems are caused by bad people. It can be bad systems – bureaucratic, unresponsive ones that are complicated, slow and inflexible, preventing the good guys from doing what they would like to do so as to be able to serve their customers well. Whatever the cause of the blockage, be it human or otherwise, customer-focused organisations empower their front-line staff to make reasonable judgements that overcome the problems they and their customers confront.

My first example is Kenya Power, where like so many of its customers we have been charged beyond what seemed reasonable given our consumption. Somehow I managed to get through to their customer experience manager, and she kindly linked me up with a professional technician, who’s been assessing our situation for quite some months. Simultaneously though, others from Kenya Power, sometimes extraordinarily rude characters, have been coming to switch us off from time to time, dismissively disinterested in their colleague’s assessment work. Despite their single-minded aim of disconnecting us, on each occasion my protector prevailed on them to hold off.

My other example is a bank, where those in my branch are exemplary in how they interact with me. But as with quite a few banks these days, they are rendered impotent in dealing with their bureaucratic impediments to smooth customer journeys. Like for instance they must get me to fill in forms by hand – relative to information they surely already possess online; and they have to send me on visits to my notional home branch as the one I always frequent cannot process what needs to be done.

Everything must be escalated; feedback to me takes forever, usually only after I have chased repeatedly; and it is typically completely unsatisfactory.

As we all know, Kenya Power is a monopoly. I have no choice but to work with them as best as I can. But for a bank to operate this way in the 21st century is unthinkable. Surely it cannot survive like this, and surely the good people such as my branch level heroes may well not wish to continue working in such an unresponsive and indifferent environment.

By bigger point is this: in your organisation, do you have good trustworthy people struggling to deliver what they wish to deliver and are so capable of delivering to their customers – whether external or internal, by the way? Must they grapple with either negatively disposed colleagues or disabling systems? How long can you expect to keep such perpetually frustrated good people?

And assuming you are in management, are you part of the solution or part of the problem? Are you perhaps blissfully unaware of such tensions?

You had better assume that they do exist, and figure out where and why. Then reform or remove the bad performers; review and relax the bureaucratic bottlenecks (while ensuring tight controls of course); and empower and recognise those who live healthy values and who care about giving good service.

Leadership messages for public servants

From time to time I have been asked to speak at the Kenya School of Government’s Strategic Leadership Development Programme (SLDP), and late last year I was invited to close its 224th iteration, virtually hosted by the Mombasa campus.

The participants were informed that I was to be their “motivational speaker” but, as I did then, I always vehemently resist such a label as too often it implies being someone who merely hypes and entertains rather than provokes serious purposeful reflection.

It’s been quite a while since I have addressed such a grouping, and as always I was impressed by the calibre of the civil servants before me, for this programme online. They were from county governments and county assemblies; from commissions and State corporations; from ministries and public universities: a great diversity. On each occasion I have been with SLDP cohorts I have been greatly reassured by the calibre of whom we employ at both the national and devolved levels of government.

What brought them all together was the desire to develop their leadership prowess. So after several weeks of intensive study, what parting shots could I add? My opener was to urge them to be “MAD”, leaders who expect to “Make A Difference”. (A phrase I adopted from KEPROBA Chairman Jas Bedi.)

I encouraged them to venture beyond the far too common “output indicators” so conveniently retreated to in government – as I have written about from time to time in this column. Not least in the context of performance contracts, too many indicators are easily quantifiable but woefully inadequate measures such as “40 staff members trained”… without bothering to assess the consequences of the training in terms of how it led to better results.

I then talked about the importance of dealing with the non-technical challenges to performance, going beyond just the technical ones. By non-technical issues we mean people problems, to do with values, attitudes and behaviour. This of course takes us to leadership, and here I explained the work I have been doing with some of our county leaders to help them develop a coaching style of leadership, one that nurtures those around them and brings them together around common visions and values.

It contrasts to the “Big Man” style of leading, the know-it-all who issues instructions rather than the enabler, the encourager, the champion. The idea is to develop an environment where staff are trustworthy and therefore trusted, with leaders feeling comfortable empowering them and delegating to them. All this in support of higher performance.

Such a culture assumes collaboration within an organisation between programmes and functions, breaking down those all too common silos; and it speaks of effective communication between levels too. The consequence of this is to reduce the waste of human, financial and other resources – so prominent in government.

In my consulting work with government entities, I explained, I bring different units together to resolve misunderstandings, conflicts and other sources of tension. I do this by having them exchange offers and requests and then involve them in a give-and-take in which they negotiate to win-win outcomes. I work in similar ways to achieve vertical alignment between levels of leadership – including within parastatals and commissions, where understanding and engagement between boards and management are improved.

As several of the participants were from the academic world, I mentioned the need for them to see their students as customers. And for these customers to emerge into the workplace fit for purpose there is a vital and urgent need for faculty members to transform from being traditional lecturers and dons who talk at an audience into facilitators who interact with engaged participants.

My final point was one I often make when addressing public servants. I encouraged them to be cheerful in their workplaces, and to apply a light touch. Too many of our technocrats feel that even to smile is to trivialise the very important work they undertake, without appreciating that such grimness prevents their people from looking forward to coming to the office.

I advocate an approach of “having a good time doing good things”, as no higher authority ever told us it is only possible to do one of these at a time. Surely a healthy culture is a happy culture, whether in government or elsewhere. And it is the job of leadership to show the way.