Service through the customer’s eyes

18th Apr 2016

Having run Gloucester and Brent Councils, the Benefits Agency and the Department for Education and Employment, Lord Michael Bichard is one of the UK’s foremost authorities on public service. We caught up with him to ask what steps the public sector needs to take to sharpen its focus on customer service.

What do most people look for when it comes to public services?

As a client, you want a seamless, affordable, functional, accessible service, when what we too often still provide are fragments of services from different bureaucracies, which the client then has to bring together into something that makes sense.

What happens when young people leave care, for example? There are exceptions, but too often they suddenly find themselves living in rented accommodation without the kind of support network they’re used to. 

And what about people who come out of prison? Because organisations are working in silos, they tend to come out without money, without support, and then we wonder why they very quickly re-offend. In these points of transition, the citizen, the client, the customer, is very often let down by our current way of working.

What can the public sector do to ensure customers receive high-quality service?

We’ve got to turn public services on their head, and start looking at the point of view of the client – the customer, citizen, patient, or whatever term you prefer. We got into this state partly because we don’t often look through the client’s eyes, but also because the public sector has lacked some of the skills that you need to design a customer-centred service. 

Collaboration is a problem, too. The sheer power of the institutions makes it difficult to work effectively together across boundaries. I think the third sector can be much more involved in delivering services for public good. People in the public sector need to develop the skills to be effective at commissioning these services.

Have you been encouraged by positive examples of service in the public sector?

If you go beyond Whitehall, you will find people who have overcome their difficulties and have provided high-quality service for the client. Famously, in Torbay, health and social care providers asked themselves, “How does all of this look through the eyes of Mrs Smith?” – and they took the view that things didn’t look very clever, so they redesigned the way in which they provided their services. 

There are also some stunningly good schools out there, relentlessly focused on improving the quality of education. They use data. They benchmark against the best. They know what every single pupil is achieving, and what they should be achieving, and they’re incredibly impressive. 

Another example is the DVLA, which has really tried to redesign its service around the customer. We all know how easy it is now to renew your road tax. They’ve integrated digital technology so that you can go online, and within a few moments you’ve done it and come away thinking, “Wow! That was good!”

How can other organisations achieve the same results? 

Leadership is important. Are leaders spending enough time with clients? Do they turn a blind eye to poor quality of service… or do they always identify it, and deal with it? Public service leaders need to be on the lookout for when things appear to not be going well and take an interest in putting them right.

Benchmarking is also key. The best organisations are desperately interested to know where the good practice is – how they can improve. I remember visiting the LG factory in Korea, and there was this group taking the latest Sony product apart, screw by screw. They wanted to learn everything they could about how it had been put together, the good and bad practice – and we need the same kind of philosophy if we’re going to provide really good service.

Ultimately, we need to move towards a world where those at the centre, the big departments, are facilitating this kind of behaviour – and I’m convinced the starting point for change is to look at things through the eyes of the client. 

Click here to read the original version of this article, published in issue 16 of Customer Focus magazine.

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