Service Standards in Public Service

I recently posted a tweet after a visit to the local post office:

A visit to the local #postoffice (to pick up a missed courier delivery) will put to rest any doubts you may have on how the #public #service machinery operates in #India in the year 2018!

I had purposely worded it in a way that did not make it too obvious if my “experience” was positive or negative. I wanted to see the kind of responses it elicits. And, it looked like my approach worked!

Here are some snippets from some of the comments that ensued…

“Similar sentiment when i went to cash out Kisan Vikas Patra”.

“Not sure if there is a sarcasm in your post. I have very good experience with Chennai Posts.”.

“… In South India, I would not trust large public hospitals, that are indeed one way ticket to hell or heaven. But I owe my life to three public hospitals in Delhi – Lohia, Safdarjung and AIIMS. BTW – private enterprises in the health care have no less horror stories to offer.”.

My own experiences with the Post Office, and the public service machinery in general, have been quite disappointing, to say the least. Of course, there are pockets of excellence in every field, and public services would not be an exception to that rule. But, public services, in general, are often characterized by poor pay and appalling work conditions (as compared to their private counterparts). The question is: Does that give them a license to lower their standards below acceptable levels?

Yes, I am also cognizant of the pathetic experiences I periodically encounter with private enterprise: The only consolation in those is that at least it is not my tax money at work. More importantly, when it comes to most private enterprise services, one has the ability to simply walk away and choose another service provider. Often, that is not an option when one encounters a public service.

As one commenter added, “Most of us in metro cities have better choices in almost every aspect of our life’s needs (education, health, food, transportation, communication, clothing, housing, etc.). Just consider the plight in hinterlands… Also, the ones which have no choice… Police, Civic Administration… May God Be With Them.”

Does it always have to be like that?

I think the key lies in understanding that the ones that need to use such services the most, are often the ones that have no other choice.

When designing a public service, bureaucrats, government officials and public servants would do well to remember that context, so that they can empathize with the “customer” needs that the service aims to ultimately address. The less privileged among us deserve a good standard of essential services. Public transport, education, healthcare and communication are all included in that list.

Enrique Peñalosa, the Mayor of Bogotá, captured it eloquently when he remarked, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.

CX vs Hyper Customization

Intuitively, we believe that all customers expect personalization and customization in the products or services they buy. Marketers are told they need to be more ‘relevant’ to the target consumer. Product Managers are taught to map out customer needs, and then address those needs through the products they design. Business folks understand that the revenue numbers they chase will grow as more and more customers see ‘value’ in their offerings. So much so, that n=1 is now the mantra of success – the ultimate segmentation goal is a segment of just one!

But, does hyper-customization always lead to an improved Customer Experience?

It’s a question worth asking, since considerable dollars are being diverted to the pursuit of providing customers with the tools they need, to tailor their experiences to their unique needs.

Take the example of a leading food-delivery app. Its initial mandate was to induce trial among hungry customers by offering them the ability to order food from their favorite local restaurants. As more and more restaurants (and customers) signed up, the app may have attracted bigger rounds of funding. And with it, came even better “features” in the app.

One such feature is the ability to add a “special instruction” along with the order placed. Of course, the app makes it clear that they merely promise to do their best to pass on these instructions to the restaurant. But, what happens if you are allergic to a substance, make a mention of strictly avoiding that substance in your order, and take delivery of a dish that includes said ingredient?

The customization feature in the app offered you the means to specify your needs, but the restaurant did not pay heed to it while preparing your order. By the time the app’s delivery boy arrived, it was too late to re-do the whole order. In such a scenario, who should take responsibility for the end product? Who is accountable for the ultimate customer experience?

Take another example of a leading five-star hotel chain that aims to make a guest’s stay as comfortable as possible. While signing up for its loyalty program some years ago, a friend of mine specified his preference as “smoking room/floor”, and this info was promptly relayed to the reservation systems for all future bookings.

Now, for the past few months, this friend has been working on quitting his smoking habit. Since his office does his bookings, he was not surprised when he discovered during a recent check-in, that he was assigned a room on the smoking floor. However, on requesting a change to a non-smoking floor, he was told that since he is a member of the loyalty program, the system would not allow this change until he logged in to his membership and updated his preference!

Imagine the plight of a weary traveler, at the end of a long working day in another town, made to recall a password to login to a system he hasn’t used in over a year – just to get a non-smoking room! Of course, it is possible to design the system such that this requirement is not mandatory. But, that’s not the point.

In our quest for providing more bells and whistles, more personalization and more customization, we may sometimes lose sight of what truly matters to our customers…

More does not always mean better. Technology does not always enable. And, let’s not forget that CX is how the customer ultimately experiences the product or service.

Richard Branson: Two Gems

The typical commute in Mumbai is harsh, to say the least. And, listening to insightful podcasts is a great way to make the most of your drive time.

One such talk I really enjoyed was a conversation with Richard Branson, founder of the international conglomerate the Virgin Group. Stephen J. Dubner of Freakonomics fame, spoke with Branson as a part of the series: “The Secret Life of a C.E.O.

While the entire series – including this episode – is worth its weight in gold, here are two takeaways that really made me stop and take notice.

1. When asked if he is actually the CEO of any of his companies, Branson had this to say:

… I’ve delegated pretty well all the C.E.O. roles. And I actually believe that people should delegate early on in their businesses, so they can start thinking about the bigger picture.

 

If I’m ever giving a talk to a group of young businesspeople, I will tell them, you know, go and take a week out to find somebody as good or better than yourself. Put yourself out of business, and let them get on and run your business day to day, and then you can start dealing with the bigger issues, and you can take the company forward into bigger areas, and you can — maybe if you’re an entrepreneur, you can start your second business or your third business.

 

And so I think too many young entrepreneurs want to cling on to everything, and they’re not good delegators.

I can’t tell you the number of people I know – personally – who need to hear this and truly internalize it. An “entrepreneur” and a “CEO” are two distinctly different mindsets. Some folks may be able to traverse the two worlds – fleetingly. But doing both simultaneously, and over a sustained period of time, is nearly impossible. The sooner an entrepreneur makes peace with that fact, the sooner he/she will be on the path to growth and success.

2. When asked about his famed approach to motivating people via employee-friendly policies across the Virgin group of companies, Branson replied:

… Let’s just look at this business of forcing people to come to an office.

 

First of all, you’ve got maybe an hour or an hour and a half of travel time in the morning, another hour and a half of travel time in the evening. And, you know, when you’re at the office, it’s important that you say hello to everybody and that you’re friendly with everybody, so you use up another hour or two, you know, socializing with people. Then, because you’re not at home, you need to communicate with your family. So you spend another bit of time communicating with your family. And so the day carries on and you might get a couple hours of work done.

 

If you’re at home, you know, you wake up. You can spend a bit of time with your family. And be a proper father, which is perhaps the most important — or mother — most important things that we can do in our life. But you can also find the time to get whatever your job is done, because you’ve got another four or five hours free to do it. And you know, we’ve never been let down by people that we’ve given that trust to.

Think about that. How many CEOs or business leaders do we know who are sensitive to the realities of day to day Life, the way the average employee perceives them? And, how many organizations can we speak about that actually “trust” their people to this degree? Work-from-home is just one dimension of this thinking; Branson also talks about a ‘prisoner program’ that Virgin runs to employ current and ex prisoners across roles, including in Security!

In my view, there has never been a better time to access the world’s riches. Insights are all around us, and conversations with folks who have done it all, are just a few clicks away. Some of us will make the most of it and learn from these experiences, while some of us will spend our time watching cute cat videos.

Fostering Innovation

We spend most of our lives in an “operational” world – one that is defined by rules, routines and rationality. But Innovation requires a different skillset that includes connection making, curiosity and experimentation. So, how does one go about building a culture that fosters these values?

This week, I had the privilege of attending a workshop run by Amazon’s Innovation team on Customer Centricity and Building a culture of Innovation. And, here are some of the principles that particularly resonated with me…

  • The key is learning how to handle experiments and failure; If you already know its outcome, it doesn’t count as an experiment
  • Culture ultimately drives Innovation; Make sure your hiring, reward & recognition, performance assessment, etc. are all aligned to support it
  • If your focus is on truly improving the life of the Customer, the other business metrics are sure to follow
  • When working on a new product/service, take the MVP route: What is the smallest thing I can do to test my idea? Then, release to users. Then, iterate and improve.
  • Avoid slide decks, and instead aim for simple narratives written in customer-speak; It will provide much-needed clarity on what will really work (and what will not!)
  • When it comes to Innovation, you need to be “Stubborn on the Vision, but Flexible on the Details” ~ Jeff Bezos

Much of this may seem like common-sense, or even something you may have read elsewhere. But, try to implement any one of these (at a team or organization level), and you will truly appreciate what goes into making it happen.

It may take a while to get there, but the reward is well worth the effort.

Change Is The Only Constant

The idea of ThinkShop was born way back in 1999, when I first started a web-design studio called UncommonWisdom to work on Internet-based Communication Design. My boutique consulting firm was way ahead of its time, but we were able to deliver some interesting work in the digital space, including digital strategy, website design and UX for enterprise-grade applications.

In its second avatar, ThinkShop began life in 2013, helping its clientele bridge the gap between Idea and Execution, until the end of 2017.

As an independent consultant at the helm of ThinkShop, I was fortunate to work with some of the leading players in Financial Services, Insurance and Education, on projects that included developing Customer Engagement strategy and Marketing Communication frameworks, User Experience Design across multiple platforms, and architecture for a 100,000+ page web presence.

With the beginning of 2018, I have decided to take up an assignment that, once again, offers me the opportunity to apply my skills to problems of scale. With it, I commence a new chapter in my professional life, as ‘Group Head – Customer Experience’ at the Edelweiss Group – one of India’s leading Financial Services conglomerates.

A big Thank You for all the support you’ve shown to ThinkShop and me.