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putting customers first takes more than just calling them customers


At one time there was great trouble throughout the land. The people were not getting their just desserts, but this had gone on for so long that they had ceased to complain and they had become stoic in their acceptance.

It came at first as a whisper, as the first stirring of a breeze breaks the calm when a hurricane is due and, like a hurricane the word was to sweep through the land uprooting the trees of resistance in its path. And the name of this hurricane was Customer First, although it was to have as many names as it had priests, for each was to brand it according to their own ways (and fee scales).

And Lo! The people did become customers; not just those in the shops and retail premises, but no longer they that travelled by train, ship, ‘plane or bus would be called passengers. No longer would those who occupied premises, whether domestic or for their trade, be called tenants. No longer would those in ill health and needing to see the physician be called patients. No longer (yes, yes, all right; we get the picture – ed).

From that day hence they would all be customers and all would be well. Their time of strife would be over and they could rest easy for, when they handed over their hard earned coin, all would be well and they would be treated in the manner to which they should.

And so the priests, gurus, mentors, consultants and trainers did prosper, their pockets full of their client’s gold, and there was great rejoicing throughout the land. Those who proclaimed the way of the Customer grew rich and, in some cases, famous. Those who had sought their help (he’s off again. Enough! – ed).

Ok, let’s cut the pseudo biblical stuff, leave this fantasy world behind and consider ours. Are you getting better service because your train operator calls you a customer? Or anywhere else where you have become “a customer”? I doubt it. Sure there have been improvements in some places, yes, but that is because people have been better trained, not because of a name change. You might argue that the name change brought about a change of thinking, but I would suggest that such influence was limited. When I travel in someone else’s vehicle I am a passenger; when I have treatment at the medic’s I am a patient and so on. I find inappropriate use of customer patronising, how about you?

Maybe I am in a minority on this (that would be good, I might have rights), and I know I am being a bit obtuse here, but the point of this missive is that you have to mean it to make a difference. Just calling something by a different name doesn’t, on its own, make a change. For me it is the equivalent of the old dodgy car dealer’s “change the plates and give it a re-spray”, and is about as salubrious.

My train of thought here came from having been pulled up for referring to the people who were renting premises as tenants. “They’re customers” I was told, but then the attitude towards them would not have been out of place for the inmates of a labour camp. Calling them customers made no difference to the way they were seen or treated, so why bother with the pretence. OK, this is an extreme example, but does calling me a customer improve my rail service? No, but what would make a difference is changing the service I get for my money. That’s the challenge.

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Work out what went wrong, not who to blame


The other week I saw a post on the web from my pal #theFMGuru Martin Pickard to say that he was writing about accident investigation in #facilitiesmanagement, and how it was not about blame, but about learning.

That is so very true and something that I’ve been passionate about myself for many years. One of my early jobs was in a major insurance business in the city and I used to have to collate papers from accident investigators into the files, and sometimes to retrieve cases from the microfiche (remember that?) archives.

Working out why something has gone wrong and trying to put it right isn’t just confined to accidents though, but the dispassionate techniques are a useful tool for working out why projects and plans haven’t worked.

As Martin puts it, this is not about blame, but people are naturally cautious above telling you what has happened because they don’t want to be seen as being at fault, so a key facet of leadership here is engendering trust so that people will be open. The more open we are the more we can learn, the more we can change the way that we work, and that in turn means that we practice, either by doing the job, or through exercising drills.

A while back I ran an estate of around 30 properties, mostly corporate HQ sites. We had a crisis management routine that we interfaced with the crisis and disaster recovery plans of our tenants. I visited the top bod of a new client one day to talk about this issue and they referred me to one of their team who handled that aspect of their business.

Our crisis management pack fitted into a personal organiser that was about A5 sized, the client’s equivalent was in a pair of 3 inch A4 binders. How on earth can you usefully use something like that? Theirs tried to cover every possible scenario and provide a way to deal with it, but there was so much of it that you couldn’t usefully use it in an emergency. Our stuff was all laminated so that you could use it outside in all weathers (if you’ve had to evacuate the building you’re going to be outside aren’t you?). And how do you practice all of those scenario’s?

In facilities management we do face life threatening situations, but rarely anything like, for example, a flight deck crew. The recent Quantas Airbus incident was yet another example of a crew who dealt professionally with an incident that they practice for on the simulator, and all credit to them for putting it into practice, but they are often in the position of having only seconds to get it right.

This shows where accident investigation can make a difference for the future. At Chicago in 1979 the pilots thought that they were dealing with an engine failure on takeoff and reacted accordingly. In fact they were dealing with a freak occurrence and, in doing things by the book, they lost control and everyone on board died.  But think about this; the flight only lasted 31 seconds, far less time than it took me to write this paragraph. In half that time they had reacted to the bells and lights and done what they were trained to do.

We all learn by getting it wrong, but most of us are lucky enough to learn in environments of fairly low risk. It shouldn’t stop us from having the drains up and trying to improve. It isn’t about blame; it’s about learning and doing it better next time it happens.

Is the purpose of your visit business or pleasure?

September 20, 2010 3 comments

In a few days time I will walk down another jetway, shuffle along the queue to face an immigration official and face that perennial question; “Is the purpose of your visit business or pleasure?” Now I learned years ago that you don’t get smart with immigration, but the answer for me is almost always “Both”.

I’ve been very lucky over the years in that my various jobs have taken me all over the UK, to nine other European countries and to the USA. I’ve met so many people and seen so many sights that it truly has been a privilege.

I don’t enjoy the travelling as much as I used to. Driving has lost much of its lustre with Labour’s hatred of the motorist showing through in so many ways over their umpteen years in power together with the complete lack of any driving standards. Osama bin Liner and his crew screwed up flying and airports and as for the trains; the method of privatisation ruined them. If I have a choice I’ll drive because at least I can chose my own route, but my next big trip has to be by air because of the distances involved, not to mention the impracticality of crossing the Atlantic in a car.

This time I am fortunate enough to be flying business across the pond and first on the internal flights so I will, at least, be somewhat pampered en route, but it is the destinations rather than the journey that interest me.

I like places, but it is always the people that make the places more often than not. Yes, architecture and scenery have their own power and I am comfortable enough with my own company and a view on occasions, but it is the people who inhabit the buildings and spaces that generally provide interest. How many conversations have I had with strangers over the last forty years or so? I have no idea, but, whether they were the business contacts I had travelled to meet or just someone I ran into, I’ve never ceased to be fascinated by them, their lives and the conversations we have shared.

There is so much pleasure to be had from finding out about people and the way that they live. I may not always agree with their views on life, business, politics or whatever, but so what? I’ve always been in the school of tolerance of other people’s right to express themselves (which is why I stand firm against political correctness). In any case, how can you ever hope to understand if you don’t expose yourself to alternative points of view? Of course I have had my fair share of bores and bigots, but you learn to deal with them. The joy is in sharing and coming away from each encounter richer in your knowledge of the way life is lived in those parts.

So who will I meet on this trip? I’m going to run into someone in the departure lounge, be sat next to someone on the ‘plane and then there are the various airports and hotels on the trip. American hospitality is second to none and I reckon I’ll have talked to at least 300 people that I’ve never met before by the time I get home.

Those that travel on business often complain that it isn’t the jolly that those who don’t travel on business view it as. I would argue that it is what you make it. Yes it can be a chore if you let it be, but you don’t have to. Business or pleasure? Always both.

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