We had Total Quality in the 1980s that believed product quality was the responsibility of everyone in the organisation if customer expectations were to be not only met but also exceeded.
Then Business Process Re- Engineering in the 1990s encouraged a rethink about how organisations functioned, so as to reduce costs and re-align the entire organisation toward the customer.
The Balanced Scorecard at the turn of the millennium integrated non-financial measures such as customer value, internal processes and people’s learning and growth into measures of success.
Yet, since the technological revolution burst upon us just 15 years ago, we have been recklessly destroying our relationship with our customers and our people.
As important as it undoubtedly is, the indiscriminate application of new technology to our business transactions is sucking the life out of the customer relationship, reducing it to cold systems and processes, and all in the pursuit of efficiency and profit.
Machines may be capable of delivering a service (what would we do without bank ATMs for example?), but they cannot deliver the service that customers need.
How many of us have been the victim of decisions made by computers about our credit worthiness for example, yet have been left with the distinct impression that a properly trained, trusted and experienced human being could have made a more nuanced and better decision, not just in our interests, but those of the organisation itself?
How many of us have experienced the ‘if-it-isn’t-on-the-screen-it-can’tbe- done’ syndrome when booking a holiday or trying to get a utility to fix a billing query?
Customer service has become reduced to an industrialised commodity: at best something done by “customer services”, at worst by machines. In the process, the ability to serve customers in a way that satisfies both their basic needs and those of the customer-facing employee, is being lost. We seem only able to see the cost savings technology offers.
But what about the cost of lost customer loyalty? The opportunity cost of not giving good service?
It costs six times as much to find a new customer as it does to keep an existing one, yet companies are now experiencing up to 30% annual customer churn because of bad service, and this is matched by up to 20% employee turnover.
The whole transactional process is becoming dysfunctional, and that is expensive! Today, companies of all types need to become less concerned with efficiency and more with corporate personality.
They need to turn again toward their customers, and they must do it through their people, equipping them and culturing them to be totally customercentric. If they don’t, their shareholders will lose out.
We must become less concerned with process and more with personality, and restore the humanity of our business transactions, embracing again that old business axiom, that people do business with people. The technology is important, but it must become our servant, not our master. We need to become wiser about its application and not just apply it willy-nilly without thought to the consequences.
We must become more mature in harnessing its enormous power and benefit. We must stop merely servicing customers and start serving them again.
Also, we must learn again to reach out from the very heart of our organisations, to the loyal satisfied customer, through the loyal satisfied employee; putting the technology and the thinking it induces behind our people, not between them and the customer as ultimate mediators of the transaction.
We must start using the technology more intelligently and re-equip our businesses to become service-able through our people. Across the span of the Industrial Revolution, our regions produced great industrial genius, which, combined with skilled, hard-working people, made them an economic force to be reckoned with.
Today we have an overwhelmingly service based economy (4/5ths of our GDP) where workers who would once have manned the machines of industry find work in call centres, dominated by technology and systemisation: used again as the slaves of the technology in that particularly modern version of the 19th Century sweat shop and failing completely to harness their inbuilt talent for warmth, friendliness and inventive initiative.
Unlike coal, that raw material of the industrial era, our regional human warmth will never subside. It is the raw material of good customer service and it needs to find a new expression.
We should seek to re-ignite a new spark, a new regional spirit, and release that new source of fuel for our region’s industry and commerce. It is well known that a warm and friendly environment is a sturdy prop of economic regeneration.
Our industrial regions could, once again, become distinctive for their human and social capital, becoming distinctive by their Service-Ability.
This will take boldness and intelligence on the part of our business leaders, who need to wake up to what is happening and realise that a major opportunity exists for those companies that get it right. In what is now a wilderness of poor or indifferent treatment of customers and an overfocus on serviceability, Service-Ability will be the next big thing.
It will be the key to sustainable competitive advantage in the early decades of the 21st Century, and it will regenerate our society.
Details of Kevin Robson’s new book, Service-Ability (£24.99 plus discount and available as an e-book) are on www.wiley.com. The former managing director of his own companies and chief executive of an international charity is now a business development and management consultant, working with diverse organisations and industries. He has lectured at four universities in the North East, holds a graduate diploma in marketing and an MBA from Durham Business School.