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Moments of Truth

Recently I had the pleasure of being at the opening of our new national forensics centre. It’s where we provide training to police forces in England and Wales.

Think CSI Miami or similar programmes, it's just like that only based in Durham and with better looking staff!

We have a blood spatter room, finger print and foot print training facilities, a whole street scene and rooms where grisly crimes can be enacted (and all very realistically).

The staff team were thrilled with the new build centre and the opportunity to look after their guests. They are without doubt one of the most empowered teams I have had the privilege to work with and their customers agree that they deliver services of the highest quality.

Compare this with other staff groups where the conversation is always a cycle of despair, where nobody makes a decision, where accountability is a dirty word. What makes the difference in the way that staff are? Is it nurture or nature? Are they just made with sunny or rain cloud dispositions or could we have something to do with it?

I believe strongly that organisations have the power to create environments where innovation can flourish, where all staff can give of their best and where at the end of the working day people can go home knowing that they have made a difference.

Equally we have the power to frustrate, irritate, de-skill and destroy the confidence of our people. So what are the levers that make a difference positively or negatively?

If we are going to consider how to improve customer service through our people we first need to look at the “moments of truth” for our organisations. These small moments – usually lasting no longer than fifteen seconds – can sum up an organisation for the customer and leave them with a lasting impression. With the right leadership and direction organisations can create leverage through their HR functions and their staff to increase positive moments of truth.

‘Moments of truth’ is a term coined in 1986 by Jan Carlzon, the former president of Scandinavian Airlines. In his book with the same title he defines the moment of truth in organisations as this: any time a customer comes into contact with any aspect of a business however remote, is an opportunity to form an impression. For Jan, customer-facing staff were by far the most important part of an organisation. From this simple concept, Jan Carlzon took an airline that was failing and turned it into one of the most respected in the industry. For Carlzon some examples of moments of truth were:

  • When you call to make a reservation to take a flight
  • When you check in your bag
  • When you are taken care of by flight attendants
  • When you are greeted at your destination

In a customer-driven organisation, the moments of truth lay in the customers’ experience of the company and how they would talk about it to other people. Jan discovered that simple decisions were being passed up the line to senior managers causing delays and frustrations for customers. He put in place a business strategy that devolved power to the front line and critically he spent more time communicating than doing any thing else. Perhaps some lessons that those running Terminal 5 may want to consider.

So how do we relate this to our own organisations?

Firstly, in my experience, unhappy staff never provide good customer service, that’s a given: motivated, focused staff do. Any organisation which does not both measure and take action on how employees feel, cannot drive up performance.

How people feel about their organisation has a direct correlation to individual and overall performance. This in turn affects service delivery. In some organisations staff become assassins rather than ambassadors, actively criticizing the organisation they work for to people they know. This in turn affects organisational reputation. Who on earth would want to work for an organisation where its own employees said it was poor? In these situations if customers could vote with their feet they would. Most of our customers in the public sector don’t have that opportunity. In looking at turning around organisations you first have to look at the daily experience of staff. If their working lives encompass:

  • Poor accommodation
  • Information technology that does not meet needs
  • Insufficient financial data
  • Unsupportive HR policies and practices

you really are at the bottom of the barrel. Let’s take one example of how HR can really get in the way of good customer service.

The basic functionality of any HR service begins with recruitment. It is essential to both recruit and promote those with the right skills, values and experience to put customers first. However, if your HR service uses complicated systems of competencies, and does not treat candidates well, if they take forever to process requests for information and fail to give feedback, your organisation is already giving a very clear message.

The message is we don’t give a stuff about you as a candidate and therefore you as a customer. Who wants to work for an organisation like that?

Equally, if we only recruit from narrow talent pools we miss out on the opportunity of staff with diverse experience and backgrounds that may meet more customer needs.

If we allow HR to hide behind Byzantine layers of obtuse policies, we frustrate and disempower our staff and managers and we give a clear message that we deliver services with the provider as king rather than the customer.

If we add to this unplanned and ad hoc development and decisions that are seen by staff to be less than fair and transparent, you have all the elements for a poorly performing organisation.

In terms of turning around there are a few key steps.

  • Firstly put in charge of HR someone who really cares about customers both internal and external and lose any staff in the function who cannot buy into a customer first philosophy.
  • Gather data from staff across the organisation and really listen and understand both the evidenced feedback and the myths and legends. Perception becomes an individual’s reality so don’t dismiss the stories, they tell you a great deal about your organisation.
  • Make sure recruitment is both slick transactionally but also recruit people as much for their values as their skills. Make it as open as possible, show staff how they need to develop in order to progress, give honest feed back at all times.
  • Create development opportunities that are open to all staff, link all development clearly to business needs.
  • Get your staff our there with customers as part of their development; let them experience the joys and woes of the customer experience.
  • Open up feedback channels. Let your staff know that you value their ideas and views and reward them for both those that work and the near misses.
  • Improve communication both internal and external and make sure that customers feature large in both.
  • Develop your managers to really value the contribution of every member of staff.
  • To be able to make a real difference to customers through your people you need the following:

    • To help your people to be ambassadors rather than assassins for your organisation
    • To understand that what people feel about their organisation has a direct impact on their performance
    • To know that people want to have pride in their organisation
    • Internal and external communication that concentrates on customers
    • And perhaps most importantly you need to know what your organisation’s moments of truth are.

Angela O’Connor
Chief People Officer
National Policing Improvement Agency