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.

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.

Doing UX Right

Yes, we live in a multi-screen, always-on world. Yes, most of us agree that Design and UX matter. Then, why is it so hard for most organizations to do UX right?

There are, of course, some challenges involved. Business enterprises are trained to think of customers as belonging to various segments. And, as the business grows, it tries to tap into an ever-expanding market, reaching out to newer customer segments that eventually have little in common with the original tribe. This is especially true of large, diversified groups of companies.

In such a context, how do we establish which design approach to take? After all, what works for one customer type, may not work for the rest. More importantly, how do we institutionalize the pursuit of “good design” across the enterprise? As it turns out, it is possible to do a few things right and meet the objective of delivering a good UX…

1. Good Design is a Thing

Segmentation is important, and customers often exhibit different personalities and needs. But ultimately, we all like an elegant, friction-less experience. So get your team thinking about what constitutes “Good Design”, learning from the principles laid down by Dieter Rams, Don Norman and others. Build on those principles when you start working on aspects like Presentation, Interaction, Content, etc. and you will be a step closer to your goal.

2. Know Thy User

Understand your “user”. Walk in his/her shoes. Meet with them often to keep in touch with their needs. Find out what they want from you. Reflect on what you want from them (Hint: There can be more than one possibility). Then, align your design philosophy to those insights as closely as possible. After all, design is not just art. It is about crafting solutions to real issues.

3. Embrace Insights

Be open to insights from diverse functions – UX is a multi-disciplinary science. Ask “why” like a five-year-old would. And, don’t be afraid to split test and iterate all your ideas. As Kate Zabriskie once said, “The customer’s perception is your reality.

4. Aim for Amazing

Understand each medium or channel that your customer interacts with. Aim for a consistence experience across channels – your customer is expecting you to do so. Every design decision is a trade-off, and you can never please every one. So make sure you make the trade-offs that matter the most. Remember: Good experience + Thoughtfulness makes for an amazing experience!

Holding Customers To Ransom

What if the business that services your needs could hold you to ransom?

Think about that for a minute. There are many business firms that enjoy a monopoly in their particular industry or geography. Yes, we clamp down on the monopolistic practices of giants like Google and Microsoft, every now and then. But, for every Google, there are hundreds of thousands of businesses that operate as a monopoly, and go virtually undetected or unfazed by anti-trust settlements upheld by the European Union. And, by virtue of the disproportionate power they enjoy, they get away with things any other business would not dream of.

Let me take a hyperlocal example of a newspaper distributor. In most major cities in the India, the newspaper distribution is virtually a monopoly. Every little nook and corner of the city is carved up in such a manner that at most one newspaper agent “services” the region, free of any competition. On the face of it, most of these agents seem to belong to just a few communities, and seem to respect each other’s boundaries as if they are conforming to some unwritten law. And most of the time, the system works. You get your newspapers and magazines delivered as per your preference, each morning, at your doorstep. And the service comes to you at no extra cost – the distribution fee is built into the cost of the publication.

But, what happens when the service standards falter? What happens if you get the wrong stuff delivered each day? Or if your favorite morning daily is delivered to you after you’ve left home for work? Yes, you can call and complain to your agent, but if his processes are broken or his staff inept, or worse, he couldn’t care less – most customers have no recourse to switch to a better alternative. In short, if shoddy services are meted out to them, they will just have to stick with it, or go out of their way each day to buy a copy from the local news stand.

Take another example of your Accountant. Once again, I speak of this in the Indian context, where prevalent Tax laws are so convoluted and ever-changing that there are very real exit barriers involved. Your “accountant” – the one who maintains your books of account and helps you file your tax returns – is not only well-versed with the regulations, but also an expert in your peculiarities and how things work specifically for you. And he/she is a vital component of the system, ensuring compliance with the law and advising you on making prudent investments, as you go through various life stages and business maturity cycles.

But, what happens if there are missed deadlines and constant reminders involved (from you to your accountant, and not vice versa)? What happens if you discover that you could have saved more tax under current provisions, but you were not informed of it in time? If the service delivery is short of expectations in this department, most of us would simply grin and bear it, because it’s not that easy to change your accountant mid-stream. I should know, since I’ve successfully attempted it on more than one occasion!

Which brings me back to my original question. But, now that we’ve understood the context in more detail, let us try and examine the issue in a new light: What if it was your business that enjoyed such a disproportionate power as a monopoly, or operated in an industry with high exit barriers?

Would you use such an opportunity to improve or lower your service standards? Would you invest any more in automation or new technology than you absolutely needed to? Would you make it easier for your customers to reach you, or avoid dealing with the extra hassle and costs involved? Would you want to listen to your customers and respond to their needs, or ignore them knowing that most are in a helpless situation anyway?

I know that most of us are part of organizations and businesses that do not enjoy such monopolistic protections. But the questions I have raised apply equally to us. In fact, even more so, considering that most businesses operate in fiercely competitive environments, where the other guy (competition) may be willing to bend over backwards to take a larger share of the market from us.

Are we doing enough to keep our customers close, respond to their needs, set and meet service benchmarks and invest in a consistent, brand experience for them? And if not, what are we waiting for?

Why Most Projects Fail

Do most projects really fail?

I know, I’m starting with a bold assertion that is probably not in sync with the positive write-ups you see all around you, as you resolve to adopt a few healthy resolutions at the beginning of the New Year. But, the fact is that most new projects either fail to meet the original objectives laid out for them, or at best, see only a partial degree of success, especially in the Services context. These “projects” may take a variety of shape and form – re-designing your online presence, creating an automated sales-tool for your field force, or designing a communication plan to engage with your customers through their lifecycle – though, they share common challenges.

So, let’s try and understand why most projects fail…

 

New and Strange

When an organisation first heads down the path of a new initiative – a project – it has little experience to bank on. Yes, it knows its own business, understands the industry in which it operates, and often has the advantage of trained resources which it can deploy. But, the project itself is a “new” initiative. And, as such, the team has to contend with the discovery and management of a plethora of issues and obstacles which it will encounter along the way, fixing them one by one as it proceeds towards the finish line. This includes known unknowns, as well as unknown unknowns.

 

Reinventing the Wheel

An obvious but surprising fact to contend with is that new projects may be new to the team working on it, but are not “new” to the world at large. Of course, “moonshot” projects like the ones undertaken by SpaceX are the exception that proves the rule. In most organisations, the Project Team will often try and “figure out” a lot of the stuff along the way, including basics of Project Management, User Experience, Customer Engagement and Communication Design. Each of these sub-specialities is an art and a science, and its mastery requires experience and training. Naturally, the Project Team’s first brush with these disciplines will not always include the best way to go about it. In essence, many new projects have a dimension of “reinventing the wheel” that is completely avoidable and provides a significant obstacle to success.

 

Limits of Specialisation

The world is probably divided into those who value specialisation (the majority) and those who value the merits of taking an integrative, holistic approach that transcends domains (the minority). Even if we don’t agree on which side we align with, in most organisations, projects are (rightfully) undertaken by a cross-functional team that includes representation from various functions like Sales, Operations, Marketing and Business Strategy. This necessarily means that the project should benefit tremendously by an integrative, multi-disciplinary approach. But, most organisations hire specialists for specific roles, and then map them to respective departments that work in silos for the most part of the year. Therefore, structurally, most organisations are ill-equipped to address the unique requirements of a cross-functional project, and the project suffers as a result.

 

Is there a way out?

There is no substitute for experience and training, when it comes to addressing complex challenges. However, there are a few things organisations can do to accelerate the Learning Curve, avoid foreseeable problems and improve the chances of success of the projects it undertakes:

  1. Identify the Gaps – Map out the needs of your project and map out your resources to assess where the gaps are
  2. Foundation of Training – Train your resources in the disciplines they are weak in before the project begins
  3. External Support – Supplement your internal teams with consultants and vendors that have the experience you need, either in specific domains or to integrate the effort
  4. Internalise the Solution – Create a plan to strengthen your organisation with the skill sets needed to manage future endeavours
  5. Learning from Mistakes – Despite all this, mistakes will happen. Don’t forget to review the process at the end, and learn from the mistakes made

It goes without saying that much of the above can only be done if the organisation provides the right culture and context in which its employees can grow and thrive. If you don’t have such a culture, start building it today. After all, your success will depend on it!