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.