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Service fails because people don’t care enough

May 10, 2015 Sunday Nation

Solomon Maundu asked me a question on his blog (and on Twitter) recently: “Is the reason the public service is bad at service delivery that most public servants do not take pride in their jobs?” In other words, do I think that bad service delivery and a lack of pride in work are connected?

Do I indeed. The reason that most service delivery (in public or private enterprise) is so very poor is simple: no one cares enough.

First, the person serving you doesn’t care. Sitting at the counter isn’t a vocation or a calling for that tired, prickly bundle of sullenness. It’s a way of earning a living. It is labour exchanged for remuneration. The job pays the bills, and that’s it.

Second, the supervisor behind the service representative doesn’t care. She doesn’t even come out to meet customers any more. I mean, how many complaints can a human being listen to? These people never stop whining. In any case, it’s not her father’s company, is it? What’s it to her?

Third, the chief executive doesn’t care. Maybe he launches a few customer service weeks here and there, and maybe the staff get some lame training once in a while, but let’s face it: this service delivery stuff is difficult. We can all pull it off once in a while; pretty much none of us can do it all the time. For a leader to even attempt great service delivery, he would have to do that very demanding thing of motivating and inspiring his staff. Which is just too damned tough. In any case, the CEO’s primary job is to suck up to the directors and shareholders, and that can be achieved without too much fancy wishy-washy stuff. For a while, at least.

Lastly, the owner doesn’t care. This is just another venture, one of many. The point of business is to make money, period. If staff are always complaining, let them go home. There are plenty more where they came from. If the business underperforms, it can be closed. There’s no bigger deal at work here – it’s all a money game.

So, you wanted service delivery? The person serving you doesn’t care. Nor does the person behind the curtain, nor the one in the corner office, nor the one stepping out of the Range Rover to enter the chairman’s lift.

And if that’s how we are in the private sector, you can imagine the travails of the person expecting service in the public sector, where the incentives are usually even worse.

Do you know who delivers great service? The person who personally, intimately, intensely cares. The person whose first objective is not to please bosses and to gain promotions, but to do the work well. The person who considers high standards a source of personal pride, not a box on the performance appraisal form.

To that person, a shoddy piece of work, a customer complaint, a missed deadline registers like a slap on the face. A lowering of the standard is unacceptable.

You can’t have met many such people. Neither have I. But they exist, and must be looked for like the rare gems they are, and put in charge of service delivery.

More important, however, is how much the leader of the enterprise cares. If that person truly gives a damn, he will move mountains to deliver great service. He will coax, cajole and inspire others to do their very best at all times. He will infuse enthusiasm in ordinary employees. For their own sake, not for anyone else’s. Because doing a bad job ruins your life more than it affects anything else.

So indeed, Mr Maundu: many things are needed for excellent service delivery to happen, including robust systems and smooth processes and outstanding individuals. But the magic ingredient? A leader who cares enough to create a culture of excellence.

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