Service Excellence – Are People the Problem?

Recently, a colleague helpfully forwarded an interesting link on Service Excellence (see  below). Like a lot of research on Service, it throws up more questions than answers. The researchers had analysed a range of studies of service performance and had identified a number of issues.

 The headliner was that 80% of employees think service is great whilst only 8% of customers think the same. The researchers’ observations were that customer service employees have a misperception of how good they are. This interpretation seems a bit clumsy. The mismatch in this data should not really be a huge shock;  to some degree, employees will tell researchers what they think they should hear – if you asked them in a pub on a Friday night they might rate service differently. The likely cause of this conflict of opinion? The fear factor – who wants to admit that they do a poor job or that their organisation is a bit rubbish?

The researchers described how “Managers are using too much stick and not enough carrot, berating staff with complaints league tables, missed targets and unfavourable mystery shopper reports. Line managers care more about targets than people, as there is data to report, processes to police, bosses to please and larger than ever teams to keep to targets.” This is a very relevant observation; however what becomes frustrating is the way that this research appears to FAIL to identify the link between symptoms (“indifferent staff”) and causes (the list of line management behaviours and protocols presented by the researchers themselves).

Even more worryingly (to use the researchers’ own phrase) the research report states “More worryingly, even when employees were shown facts about customer dissatisfaction, they were twice as likely to blame the organisation as to accept responsibility.” To say this is worrying is INCORRECT – it is not worrying it is in fact highly probable that the workforce have got it spot on; 90% of problems are caused by the system, not the people – so no wonder employees think that it is the company that is the problem!

The fundamental difficulty with the research observations is that they present PEOPLE AS THE PROBLEM, which in 80-90% of cases is unlikely [see messages repeated by heavyweight thinkers like Deming since the 1950s, Senge and more recently Seddon].

So, in summary, although the research article found out some truths, unfortunately they have only one eye open to what they are seeing. They recommend giving people (service staff) a kick as implied by their term – ‘improving attentiveness’ (how do you make people more attentive?) although like any modern HR practitioner, they include some soft and cuddly stuff (still ‘kicks’ actually), such as “Managers need to engage employees and treat them as you want them to treat customers, coach staff to think more commercially and show why giving your full attention to customers is so important.” To be fair they go on to urge managers to do less reporting on sales figures and more observing and guiding their front line colleagues.  However, in any type of organisation, if you do all these positive things but don’t remove all the conditions of targets, scripts, reports, procedures and sanctions then nothing will change – except employees will get even more annoyed and will feel under increasing pressure – and this will be observable to customers, eventually, as even WORSE service. There is still a lot to learn.

To see the original summary of this research, go to the article on the site:

Better insights on service can read here:

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.



4 thoughts on “Service Excellence – Are People the Problem?”

  1. Thanks, Simon. Interesting analysis of the CIPD article. Sticks have certainly proven to be ineffective as a way of engaging with people although I believe that the ‘soft’ stuff you mention (eg coaching staff, working collaboratively to create solutions) is actually extremely ‘hard’ since it involves enormous effort by people managers to work in partnership with staff to create solutions rather than simply telling staff how it should be done.

    I agree what isn’t helpful is when we blame the system in isolation without considering how we need to work with and influence people who can change it – including taking personal responsibility for our own actions to change whatever system needs changing.

    Our collective challenge is look to people being the solution rather than the problem.

  2. This is absolutely right, Cindy. I think the worst that leaders can do is to try and smooth the ‘soft’ things over a bad working environment – a bit like smoothing icing over an unappetising cake – it may initially seem to do the trick but ultimatley fools no-one and dissappoints everyone – and annoys them even more that if there was no icing at all (since people feel conned).

    Instead, to work with people properly takes hard work and considerable thought (fortuantely we have brains provided for that purpose). People managers needs to understand that their teams are part of their overall work system. Partnering with staff to understand how to make this all work together more effectively requires dialogue, questioning, listening, experimentation and real learning. As you point out – all of these things require people to be the solution.

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