Poor Service Delivery – is it a function of the person or the system?

We often mistake poor performance as a function of the person, when in fact it may be the function of the ‘system’ in which that person or persons operate. This is very rarely ‘openly’ presented as being the case. What instantly springs to mind is the team or staff member have not performed optimally and require retraining or general admonishment. Businesses often ignore or do not consider the system in which their teams operate, as being at fault? Do we unknowingly set our teams up to fail without even realising it?

This in turn leads to disgruntlement, a lack of urgency, continual operational problems, customer service issues, reduced productivity, reduced sales and ultimately a poor bottom line. A continuous cycle that is demoralising and leads to high staff turnover. Sound familiar? But who or what is at fault?

And high staff turnover leads to other problems such as understaffing which leaves gaps in the organisation. Word gets around and it becomes more difficult to employ the right people and to train them well. Mistrust between management and staff grows and creates a mistrust loop that is hard to break. 

In turn managers become disillusioned and depart for greener and healthier pastures. It becomes more difficult to find good managers who in turn are needed to train frontline teams or staff in general. Expectations are then further lowered internally which directly impacts and influences frontline teams and staff. Managers can no longer empower employees because they don’t trust them to do the job correctly. And so, it goes on, with the result being unhappy and frustrated customers who drift to your competitors.        

There is also the compounding effect whereby additional rules and regulations are introduced to correct issues, by senior management or head office, without considering how this might impact frontline teams. If poor procedures and processes already exist, then this behaviour ultimately adds to the confusion and additional layers of bureaucracy, that employees simply cannot manage, and thus further disengage. More rules and more procedures are added to stem the erosion but to no avail. And who gets blamed (poor management – possibly) but in many cases it is the frontline and support teams, the workhorses of the organisation that are blamed for poor customer performance and delivery. Frontline teams either become further entrenched in the negative spiral, taking sides, and pushing back by blaming management, or they see the light and leave. However, the latter is not always possible for some employees, for various reasons, and they simply ‘hunker down’ and deliver the bare minimum expected of them. 

I’m sure most of us have experience a business with a ‘bad attitude’. Often it is apparent the minute you step in the door or interact with staff online or by other means. It’s sad when this becomes the case, and you are left wondering just how much longer that business will remain active for. Businesses don’t start out to perform badly and nor do employees join with the intention of delivering a bad service. An inadequate ‘system’ built around the employees is what can fail teams and the company they work for. But sometimes we don’t recognise this until it is too late, defaulting to rather blaming staff for poor performance (because of a poor system and procedures), which in turn leads to cuts in staffing numbers and more procedures are introduced to resolve issues, and so the merry-go-round continues.

So, what is the answer?

Firstly, you must make it about the customer. Create a business that is customer and most importantly frontline centric (sounds cliched but true). Value creation for the customer is in every decision you make. Don’t make it about employees, make it about the customer!

Measure, measure, measure whilst continually updating staff training and procedures. It’s important to separate out the two. The common approach is to test frontline staff performance, their interaction with customers, and the ‘verbal’ sales process. However, we encourage a ‘procedural’ assessment alongside this approach. Remove the person and test, measure, the processes that drive an organisation. For example, your online capability such as navigation, ease of use, ordering process, contact forms, general enquiries, chatbots, and availability of social media platforms, etc. Then turn your attention to the bricks and mortar environment and measure ease of ingress/egress, access to stock, clear signage/pricing, cleanliness, music/entertainment (loud/inappropriate), POS positioning, ease of transaction, CRM capture, return policy, etc.

Take the results of your findings and simplify the customer journey and service, by delivering the basics extremely well. Standardise your procedures, train, and cross-train your teams and empower them to take charge, based on solid guidelines. Line management and head office must make decisions based on how it will positively (or negatively) impact the frontline teams in serving the customer well. Have leaders spend a day or more with frontline teams to build humility and understanding.

Make an investment in your employees.

To win with your customers and to keep them coming back, pay your employees above the median, to attract better staff and keep turnover low. This is potentially the most difficult to implement (particularly in hard times and if labour costs represent a large portion of overall cost) but will deliver the momentum needed.

Don’t rely on past metrics to predict the future because they do not. If anything, you will simply be repeating the same mistakes. Measure today and act today based on the outcomes. This is true leadership. To improve the customer experience, you must setup your employees for success.

Richard John Potton.

Managing Director – Hoed Research.