We live in a service economy but my experience is that the “service” part is sadly missing. Why is that ? Could it be that the ‘moral distance’ is far too long ?
Recently I ordered a product on line ( from a very well known high street retailer ). I clicked, payed and waited. And waited. After four days I still hadn’t received a delivery date ( they had promised that I would have the product within five days ). Checking my online account I found that the order had been “suspended” and my money had been returned. I phoned the helpline to find that the link between the online web site and the warehouse wasn’t working - they were selling products that were not in stock! I sent an email to complain about lack of communication about the order to which I received an apology about the situation and that they had passed the problem on. I then reordered another product and after thee days I received message requesting me to collect the parcel from the logistics company depot ( about an hour’s drive away ) - which I ignored! A few days passed and the product arrived. Three days later I received an email saying that there had been a problem with my first order! This story is not unusual. I have had problems with companies large and small, and I could write a “collected works” about the frustrating service from utility companies.
I am not blaming the front-line staff, they didn’t install the on-line system. They had to face the flack from irate customers probably with their hands tied by processes and protocols. This is a problem with the business leadership and the distance between their actions and the consequences on customers and frontline staff - the moral distance. The greater the moral distance the less that its business leaders have to suffer the moral consequences of their actions. The airline leadership not ensuring that there was adequate planning leading to the cancellation of flights and the gate agents fielding annoyed customers. There can be moral consequences from the lack of action. Politicians not making sure that predictable events were adequately resourced in the NHS and tens of thousands of operations cancelled leaving hospital staff to manage frustrated and ill people. In my case it is clear that the business leadership decided that an on-line presence was required. However following through the consequences of the action and making sure that the new on-line system was talking to the warehouse seems to have fallen through the gap, resulting in their customer service fielding telephone calls and emails from at least one annoyed customer.
Business leaders face a dilemma. As their business grows, or changes to meet the latest customer demands, then the moral distance will increase. The link between them and front line staff and their customers becomes extremely long. Can the moral distance be reduced ? Here are some thoughts. First, to assess the impact of any actions whether it is the implementation of a new sales system, procedures or training to manage customers, then the front line staff should always be involved. In my experience all front line staff are dedicated to their businesses, and they can provide some practical ways to make sure that the changes actually help customers.
Nothing is perfect in business when implementing change and it is critical that a ‘what-if’ analysis should be carried out e.g. what happens when we run out of stock? what happens when the helpline is busy? and so on. Also, check how the customer will be managed if something goes wrong. In my case I received no notification of a problem other than there was a ‘suspended’ message against the order which meant very little to me. A better word would have been “out of stock.”
Finally, business leaders should be visible, approachable and remain in contact with the frontline staff and their customers. This can be done in many ways, ranging from “Management by walking around” or regularly monitoring helplines, complaint systems or social media. In other words making it a priority that they are in contact with the frontline and customers.
It is clear that as the moral distance increases then the quality of service tends to reduce, not only for a business but for governments and other organisations. A reduction in the moral distance will put the “service” back into the service economy and next time I order a product it will arrive on time !