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The customer’s always right, they say, but what happens when organisations take customer service too far?

Effectively engaging employees and focusing on the customer are contemporary mantras in most organisations, be they private or public. But sometimes senior management’s efforts to engage prove inadequate and what looks like customer focus is a symptom that all is far from well.

What happens then, when senior managers are out of touch with their workforce, when the need for change fails to convince, and when managers continue to drive customer focus without fully grasping what it means?

In short, when employers fall short of employees’ expectations in this respect, emotions can become driven by an acute sense of futility, uncertainty and injustice. Some people will try to send messages to senior management, using what limited avenues are open, to get them to see reason.

Failing that, they may find themselves recalibrating their customer focus and the results can be startling as well as darkly comic. We remember taking a domestic flight, shortly after a certain airline had adopted a new no hot food on short-haul journeys policy. Cabin crew slapped sandwiches down  in front of us, saying: “Terrible, isn’t it? Management decided our costs were too high, so this is all you get. I expect you’ll want to complain? We’ll be around in a minute, with complaint forms…”

As morale dives, employees – cut off from the people driving the organisation’s strategy – can become convinced that they are heading in the wrong direction. Passive aggression can begin to rule, accompanied by a collective rolling of eyes and a reluctant compliance: ‘If that’s the way they want it, we’ll play along and watch the place collapse.’ Further down the road lurks whistle blowing and sabotage, last-ditch efforts, in their eyes, to put  the business back on course.

Indeed, a disturbing form of ‘changing sides’ can take place; where the employee adopts the behaviours of the customer. In one instance, we saw a central support function aping the behaviours of its internal clients. There, employees had gone further than taking the side of customers; they had become the customer. They worked in a planning department, which had started out with a mature focus on governance and internal efficiencies, with the objectivity and balance this implied.

Unfortunately the department’s customer was a strategic business unit with a ‘salesy’ culture; exactly what the company felt it needed at the sharp end. It was also typically entrepreneurial in rejecting structure and standardisation, with no time for help from the centre, controls and constraints.

It took three years for the transition to take effect, during which the planning function was under pressure, workloads had escalated, budgets had contracted and the space at managers’ disposal to manage shrank dramatically. People’s self-esteem took a knock as professional standards declined; collectively, the team felt they were on a hiding to nothing and were sure the time was coming when they would be found wanting.

By aping the entrepreneur, the planners focused on the short term and the immediate, pragmatic fix, losing the ability to stand back and appraise situations dispassionately and give their internal customers the input they needed. Not surprisingly, things went from bad to worse.

Under pressure, they had seen the hopelessness of their condition and, by way of defence, unknowingly looked for a different persona, a different identity and even a different purpose to keep them safe. They fell upon a set of behaviours which mirrored that which had brought their clients success and approval, to the detriment of both. This phenomenon has been seen in the health sector, in trauma units (or similar) where health workers under pressure see themselves failing to meet their own professional standards and pick up the behaviours of their patients.

This is a condition typically brought about by pressure to produce results without adequate resources, and where employees feel they cannot engage meaningfully with senior managers. Of course, miracles do happen even when people are constrained by slim budgets, but critically, when all struggles are uphill and the stakes are high, managers who neglect  staff engagement can see those very people lose sight of their core purpose and start to behave like the customers they are there to help.

Frank Hore and David Low are co-founders of The Service Management Partnership,  a consultancy that addresses strategic and organisational issues in the service sector.

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