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A 'Quality' and 'Customer Service' Conundrum

Over the past seven years, I have been heavily involved in the Australian Customer Service Association (ACSA). My involvement has been as the State President, Vice President and as an evaluator in the Australian Customer Service Awards.

This has been both a difficult and privileged time. The difficulties have stemmed largely from the voluntary contribution that all ACSA executive provide. Finding time for my real job, on occasions has been difficult!

The privileges from my involvement with ACSA have stemmed mainly from what I have learned about the customer service being provided by many organisations across various industry sectors in WA. I am convinced that a major problem with many WA organisations is that they are doing a good job TOO quietly! I have seen some outstanding organisations with a total commitment to providing continuously good customer service. Glancing through past winners of the ACSA Awards, I’m sure, only begins to give an insight into the type of organisations to which I am referring.

It is interesting to reflect on the extent to which these high performing organisations have been influenced by the quality movement. While some have a strong commitment to quality assurance, others do not. Of course, the difficult question is whether or not the quality movement has nonetheless influenced those high-performing organisations that do not have a commitment to quality assurance.


Alignment is One Key

Being involved as an evaluator in the ACSA Awards has been an instructive experience. Not unlike the Australian Quality Awards, the ACSA Awards require organisations to focus on criteria that are broadly focussed, being:

  • Service Leadership
  • Customer research
  • Responsiveness
  • Employee Development
  • Innovation and Improvement
  • Customer Satisfaction
The Awards process requires an organisation to submit a written application of no more than 20 pages, which addresses each of the six criteria. Organisations that are judged to have submitted a written submission of high quality across each of the six criteria, are then included in the next phase of evaluation. This involves a site visit, normally by two evaluators. The role of the evaluators in large part is to determine whether or not the written documentation matches what actually takes place i.e. whether or not there is a ‘rhetoric-reality’ gap.

In my view, the ‘winning’ organisations from previous ACSA Awards have demonstrated two broad characteristics:

  • They have good systems and good people focussing on internal and external  customers
  • All the literature and documentation in the organisation reflects what people do, and the staff are aware of all this relevant documentation. Put another way, there is a strong alignment among what people do, what they SAY they do, and what the organisational documentation says that they do!

These points risk sounding glib, but their power is perhaps best illustrated by considering an organisation where these features are NOT in place.


UGRs – A New Concept?

One of the great challenges being faced by many organisations relates to the issue of alignment. While an organisation may say the right things in its marketing materials and while it may mouth the right words at appropriate times and locations, its culture may well be sabotaging the entire business. 

The notion of organisational culture, while being more than adequately written about, is all too often misunderstood. In my view culture is too often seen as a theoretical, or abstract construct, that has little application to the ‘real world’. I prefer to consider an organisation’s culture using a definition that says ‘this is the way we do things around here’.

In my recently published book, Service Into Profit, I develop this notion further by introducing a concept called ‘UGRs’, which refers to Unwritten Ground Rules. This concept is probably best understood by the following examples, which are taken from an organisation I am aware of:

  • At our meetings it isn’t worth complaining because nothing will get done
  • The only time anyone gets spoken to by the boss is when something is wrong
  • The company talks about good customer service, but we know they don’t really mean it, so we don’t really have to worry about it
  • Our funniest jokes usually involve making jokes about our work colleagues
  • We go through the motions with our bosses, once they’ve gone we do what we want
UGRs exist in EVERY organisation. They are rarely explicit, but their power is enormous. UGRs can be deduced by watching how people react to each other, and by determining what is ‘right and acceptable’ within the origination. UGRs are most prominent in the casual and informal discussions between staff, in the ‘talk’ that occurs AFTER meetings, in the way people under pressure react to other staff and customers, and in the difference between what people SAY and what people DO.

UGRs relate to every aspect of the organisation, including:

  • How staff relate to management and vice versa
  • How staff relate to each other
  • How staff and management relate to customers 
  • The importance of performance management
  • The value of suppliers to the organisation
  • The willingness of the organisation to change
  • How hard people work
  • How committed people are to the organisation
  • The importance of teamwork
  • and so on….
Nothing is more influential on the levels of internal and external service than an organisation’s UGRs. UGRs are integral to how a team functions, because they define behavioral boundaries in terms of how people work together. UGRs give a clear message about what is, and is not acceptable in an organisation. 

This notion of UGRs, and whether or not they are aligned to the verbal and written words in an organisation, is a major key to unlock organisational improvements. 

In the successful organisations that I have seen over the seven years of my involvement with ACSA, there has been a strong alignment of organisational marketing and system documentation, what staff and management say about the organisation, and its UGRs.

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