I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with the customer. One way or another I have managed to spend all of my working life (which is quite a long time) thinking about customer service. I started off as a classics teacher in a rather elite girls boarding school in Berkshire, trying to ensure my pupils lived up to their demanding parents’ high expectations – then I moved on to the John Lewis Partnership, and ended up serving some of the same parents in a rather different capacity. John Lewis taught me a lot I suppose, after all it is surely the absolute pinnacle of customer excellence, isn’t it?! Yet it amazes me to this day that I and my fellow ‘Partners’ never once received any formal customer service training; what we did seemed to come genuinely from the heart and we did mostly really enjoy what we did (although running the Christmas stationery department two years in a row at the height of the festive season did rather test my customer tolerance levels…..).
Renouncing the retail world for something marginally more altruistic, I joined HM Land Registry and started working with conveyancing solicitors registering the transfer of property. This time I really was surprised – even though buying and selling our homes is such a significant and emotional experience, the word ‘customer’ was itself alien and the concept of speedy delivery clearly anathema. My claim to fame was becoming the first ever Land Registry head office customer service manager in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and trying to get people to talk about something called ‘e-conveyancing’ – some people got it, but not as many as you might think.
A short spell at Lambeth Benefits Service brought me back to earth with a bump – the reality of frontline customer service was a big wake-up call, and what I learnt there has stayed with me ever since. Multiple issues around the ‘front/back office divide’, extreme customer poverty and vulnerability, and entrenched organisational stasis influenced my emerging perception of customer insight and its use. Luckily the new Service Transformation team at Cabinet Office together with Sir David Varney (remember him??) were interested in my experiences, and that became the new heyday of customer insight, the delivery council, channel shift, customer journey mapping, customer segmentation etc. etc.. (We produced a lot of manuals!)
Five years later I have long since left the Whitehall world of strategy behind and I find myself, as part of RedQuadrant, practicing just what I used to preach – and there isn’t a single day that goes by when I don’t talk about the customer. The days may have long gone when we talked about offering our service users absolutely everything they wanted, and the stark reality of year-on-year funding cuts means that we have to approach service delivery in innovative and efficient new ways; but customer need still lies right at the heart of what the public sector does and the challenge of meeting it remains so important. I’ve had the pleasure of working with several councils over past months (Reigate and Banstead, Islington, Plymouth and Merton, to name some) whose relentless focus on the customer even in the most pressing of times reminds me that my own obsession isn’t quite so unusual, and that whatever we call it (customer transformation, customer focus, service transformation, customer insight…..) it’s still a worthy cause and there’s always something new to learn!