Beyond Policy and Processes: A New Perspective on Customer Service


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Most initiatives to upgrade the quality of customer service focus on evaluation of customers’ expectations, the related operating processes, the status of technology in use and above all the policy guidelines. All that is, of course, important. However, to create and sustain competitive differentiation in quality of customer service one has to look at the whole issue of customer satisfaction from a different perspective.

Pursuit of excessively fast growth rate as a matter of business strategy and induction of new people at the key positions can result in a cultural churning in a company. Too many new products, too many new customers and too many new people can end up with internal conflict of priorities and loss of objectivity. Unless protected doggedly company’s core values may get diluted leading to ambiguity, indecision and loss of initiative. A phenomenon called “organizational schizophrenia” creeps in with a fairly negative impact on organizational performance in general and on quality of customer service in particular.

If customers feel quite positive about these interactions they consider the company’s culture as customer-centric and they begin to develop a sense of engagement.

I make the above statement on the strength of targeted empirical research carried out by me in three phases and concluded in the year 2011. The research unfolds how human and organizational dynamics come into play in day-to-day operations of a company and end up creating a cultural drift. The research findings have been used as the primary source material for my customer-service book: Organisational Schizophrenia—Impact on Customer Service Quality (SAGE 2013). The book makes out a spirited case for the business leaders and managers to sit up, and rigorously look for organizationally induced distortion in perception of employees’ self-interest, declining employees’ engagement and growing reluctance to use discretionary effort.

I am happy to share the genesis, the methodology and broad outcome of this research which looks at the widening gaps between promise and performance from a new perspective.

The Research Trigger

For customers, the quality of service delivered by a company manifests itself in the way the commitments are honored, the degree of responsiveness, level of employees’ competence, and the attitudinal maturity displayed by the customer-contact-employees. If customers feel quite positive about these interactions they consider the company’s culture as customer-centric and they begin to develop a sense of engagement.

A company would be eminently well equipped to deliver excellent customer service if the following drivers of service quality are firmly in place:

  • unambiguous customer policy,
  • clear and updated understanding of customers’ expectations,
  • service standards that meet—or preferably, exceed—those expectations,
  • appropriate organizational structure,
  • stabilized business processes,
  • emotionally engaged and professionally enabled employees whose performance can measure up to the set service standards and
  • A network that enables clear and concise internal and external communication.

Many companies can rightfully claim to have the wherewithal for delivering good customer service. And yet, it is not uncommon to find that even well equipped, well-meaning, highly customer-centric companies fail to deliver the promised quality of customer service.

Over a period of time I went through many first-hand service encounters for one default or the other committed by a number of reputed companies. A top notch bank went too far in blaming me for a bounced check only to find that the bank had committed a serious mistake. A major automobile dealer deliberately used an outdated price list and collected more money before delivering the car to me. An “ethics driven” insurance company generated a fake letter to justify three months delay in refunding a double payment. A “friendly” housing bank took more than 150 days to pay an overdue interest on a term deposit.

Likewise, an airlines of some repute, a prestigious hotel and a high-end music store failed to provide the promised service made. Since I persisted my problem was ultimately sorted out in each case but not before I reached or gate-crashed into the office of a senior enough manager. I was highly frustrated, not so much because they gave me a reason to complain in the first place, but more because no one would readily accept the mistake and quickly do something to correct the shortfall.

In the process, I came face to face with two distinct facets of people’s behavior within the same company. The pattern of behavior was almost similar in each case.

  • At the operating level, I did get plenty of lip service but in terms of real action it was a usual mix of apathy, evasiveness and attempt to wriggle out of a bad situation.
  • At the senior/top management level, executives were apologetic about what they thought was inexcusable lapse in meeting my genuine expectations, paid involved attention, quickly understood the issue and made sure that my complaints were resolved to my satisfaction with the utmost speed.

Looking back at each of these incidents, I was amazed at such a striking contrast in behaviour at two different levels of hierarchy. The individuals heading these organisations, known to enjoy high personal credibility, would have never liked their companies to short-change any customer at all. In reality, however, more and more customers were unhappy because they were not getting the kind of service support they had expected.

The whole scenario defied any logic and many questions started agitating my mind. I decided to explore:

  • Where does a disconnect take place between intent and implementation; promise and performance; policy and practice?
  • Why do mission/vision statements and internal policy directives fail to inspire the front-line employees to act purposefully?
  • Does this represent a cultural diversion within some parts of the company?
  • What is the root cause for an organisation to behave in a schizophrenic manner?

The Research Methodology

As a student of customer service at large, it was my perception that to find the answers to these intriguing questions, I would have to look beyond the policies, processes or technology. I had expected that I would find my answers embedded in the human and organizational dynamics within a company. Accordingly, I decided to carry out empirical research targeted at the very people, who collectively have the power to deliver exemplary service. As a matter of rule the people on the firing line do not wish to put their own self esteem at risk by repeated and embarrassing failures to meet the customers’ expectations. They have, therefore, the highest stakes in ensuring that the customers are fully satisfied. Only they would know better why some of the companies fail to keep operating practices generally aligned with the declared policy.

The research carried out in three phases over a period of three years and a half, covered the following grounds:

  • Personal interviews—mostly one to one and lasting about sixty to ninety minutes—with close to 200 people, with some more than once.
  • Twelve different companies—three of which were studied in considerable details.
  • Respondents handling different functions at different levels of hierarchy; about 80 per cent of them being the customer contact frontline employees and backend support providers.
  • Attended some internal review meetings.
  • Relevant internal documents studied.
  • Respondents fully assured of anonymity.

The Research Findings1

As expected, the answers to the vexing questions lay within the VOICES of the people and in the sum total the research revealed that gaps between policy and practice occur more because of the behavioral rather than systemic reasons:

  • Undue obsession with number targets,
  • Policy paradoxes,
  • Inconsistent use of complaints management system,
  • Poor communications,
  • Outsourcing of task misconstrued as freedom from responsibility,
  • Gaps in accuracy and availability of Knowledge at the point of action,
  • Need for higher degree of employee engagement and improved performance and
  • Lack of rigor in enforcing cultural discipline.

Dig deeper and you would find that most of the factors listed above are the ramifications of two fundamental policy approaches. To create and sustain a positive culture it would be a great step forward for the companies to review these approaches and modify them as necessary.

  1. Customers First or Shareholders?
    Evidence suggests that shareholders actually do better when firms put the customer first rather than focusing on maximising shareholders value in the short term. Nonetheless, executives have continued to work on maximising shareholder value as their top priority. On the other hand, customer satisfaction has also acquired strategic priority in the current business scenario. Companies, therefore, also want to maximise customer satisfaction as a tool for competitive differentiation. According to the optimisation theory, a firm cannot maximise both customer value and shareholder value at the same time. You have to make a choice upfront. Any attempt to do otherwise can only result in internal conflict within the company. This perpetual conflict cascading all the way down to the front line employees allows organisational schizophrenia to creep in.

  2. Culture of Discipline
    A culture of discipline requires people to be self-disciplined and passionate about their responsibility. It requires people to take disciplined action religiously consistent with the company’s mission and core values. A culture of discipline is not a ruthless culture. It is a rigorous culture. To be rigorous means consistently applying exacting standards at all times and at all levels, especially in upper management.

Break the Tyranny of Numbers

It appears appropriate to bring the following coincidence to the readers’ attention because, in effect, it is an endorsement of the severity of excessive focus on numbers to almost the exclusion of company’s long-term business goals.

Chapter 8 of my book, Organisational Schizophrenia, is titled “The Force of Numbers” and it deals at some length, with the issue of obsessive pursuit of number targets. High-pitched slogans within a company exhorting people to focus on top line and bottom line numbers can result in loss of objectivity, lop-sided priorities and change of perception about the employees’ self-interest. This situation can end up some times in tyrannical effect on the customers waiting for technical support or complaint resolution that does not have a scope to boost the revenue stream in the short run. I had, therefore titled this chapter, initially as “The Tyranny of Numbers”. However, on second thoughts, it occurred to me that many business executives or leaders might find the word too harsh. So, I replaced the word “Tyranny” with “Force.” More than a year later, while reviewing my book, a leading Business Daily used some excerpts from this chapter and lo and behold, the article carries “The Tyranny of Numbers” as its heading. While it is an interesting coincidence, I also see it as strong endorsement of the views expressed in the chapter.

Semantics apart, urgent need to shift the focus from shareholders value or numbers to long-term customer relationship is gaining wide-spread endorsement from many business leaders across the world.

In an interview in March 20092, even Jack Welch—who was once considered the embodiment of the idea that a company’s sole aim should be maximising returns to its shareholders—said, “On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy… your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products.”

End Notes:

  1. To know more visit
  2. Francesco Guerrera, “Welch Condemns Share Price Focus,” in Financial Times, March 2009.
Gopal Gureja
Spanning 1960-1996, service manager in mfg. sector - Thermax Ltd; business unit head, member of board of directors; Published Creating Customer Value (Tata McGraw-Hill, 1997); taught Relationship Mktg/CRM at business schools, wrote sporadic articles for business dailies; Authored Organisational Schizophrenia: Impact on Customer service quality (SAGE, 2013), occasional consulting/speaking assignments.


  1. I really liked this. It’s a take that goes beyond the overly simplistic ideas we’re inundated with. One thing. If customer service IS to get better, we need to acknowledge realities impinging on company decision makers, and accept they will NOT change, and work within the constraints.

    One example is the suggestion there should be a shift away from shareholder value. Not going to happen. Too deeply embedded in our economic system. That’s not a corporate decision, per se, but a response to a reality that affects ALL public companies.

  2. If, to pick up a quote from your blog – “Too many new products, too many new customers and too many new people can end up with internal conflict of priorities and loss of objectivity. Unless protected doggedly company’s core values may get diluted leading to ambiguity, indecision and loss of initiative. A phenomenon called “organizational schizophrenia” creeps in with a fairly negative impact on organizational performance in general and on quality of customer service in particular.” – then, clearly, the enterprise does not have its customer-related priorities in order. Agree with your conclusion that building customer relationships is the goal. See my blog on this subject:

  3. Thank you for your comments, Robert!

    'For more than three decades, executives have made maximising sharehold¬er value their top priority. Corporates have been conditioned to believe that enhancing shareholder value is the sole purpose of their existence. This, indeed, has been the root cause for pushing customer satisfaction to low priority. However, after the global financial crisis (starting late 2007) this fast-spreading 'wisdom' was brought into question. The debate whether firms should focus most on their shareholders, their customers or their workers was revived once again.

    My research reveals clear signs of winds of change. Most of the following data is fairly well known but I have tried to put various pieces together as an indication of a resurgent move put customer first.
    • In an interview in March 2009, Jack Welch , who, among others, was considered as one of the most outspoken advocates of the primacy of the shareholders-value-first premise said: "On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy. Your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products.”
    • Richard Lambert , the head of the Confederation of British In¬dustry (CBI), pre-dicted in a speech early 2010 that the era of "Jack Welch capitalism” may be drawing to a close. , 'If you concentrate on maximising value to shareholders over the short term, you put at risk the relationships that will determine your longer-term success.'
    • Roger Martin, Dean of Rotman School of Management, argues, in an article he wrote in the January 2010 issue of Harvard Business Review, that shareholder value should give way to 'customer-driven capitalism' in which firms 'should, instead, aim to maximise cus¬tomer satisfaction'.
    • In the recent past, Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever was quoted to have said to the Financial Times: 'I do not work for the shareholder, to be honest; I work for the consumer, the customer.' Taking a long-term view, sharper focus on other stakeholders' interest is one major reason for increased shareholders' value.

    • When Howard Schultz returned to Starbucks as CEO in early 2008, after a hiatus of nearly eight years, he quickly concluded that growth had become a 'carcinogen' and that the company needed a trans¬formation in its culture and operating approach. He bemoaned that "there were times, during the period we were chasing growth, when we were making decisions that were kind of complicit with the stock price. That's a very, very dangerous road to go down”.

    • More and more companies are compelled to put customer satisfaction at a level of strategic priority to create and sustain competitive differentiation.

    • At the policy level, all the three respondent companies that I studied in great details are growth oriented, and customer committed companies. And yet, more by default rather than design they let some gaps creep between their promise to the customer and actual performance. The reasons for drift between practice and customer policy have been listed out in the main article.

    The book Organisational Schizophrenia : Impact on Customer Service Quality, ( based on the findings of my research makes out a spirited case for the business leaders and managers at various levels of hierarchy to sit up and consciously exercise the rigour of disciplined thought and action across the organisation. That alone can ensure that practices stay properly aligned with policy to maximise customer satisfaction.

    Robert, I sense that you, personally would like to see overall customer satisfaction levels to rise in your country as well as elsewhere. As an educationist and a trainer of minds you are in a great position to help this happen. Thank you.

  4. Thank you. Tons of comments, but I have to limit myself here. First, rhetoric is not action. When I see companies investing cash in staffing properly to improve service, despite a short term impact (let’s say over 2-3 years) on shareholder value, I’ll be more optimistic. Customer service isnt scalable. It costs. The claims that better service differentiates, and hence results in measurable ROI are oversimplified.

    Second, in many ways prioritization of customer service so there’s clear noticeable improvement via action isn’t up to companies, per se. The economic structure – the way publicly traded companies are held accountable via the accountability chain, plus the market’s short term focus on returns, isn’t going to make it easy to invest in customer service.

    Companies can’t change the economic system in which they work.

  5. Quick note on priorities. Though it’s easy to talk about priorities as first, second third…etc, psychologically it doesn’t work that way. They shift contextually and dynamically. That’s the case for both individuals and companies.

    I have to run, so if what I’ve said above is true, what are the implications for customer service, and priorities?

  6. While we are on the same page about the importance of meeting the customers' expectations, we have different perception about the firms' willingness or ability to focus on customer care as a matter of priority in the current economic system.
    I agree that companies cannot change the economic system in which they work. However, great companies are known to have changed the rules of the game within the same environment. Jim Collins, a veritable student of companies, says in his classic book, Good to Great: "Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness is largely a matter of conscious choice”.
    I agree that priorities can dynamically change in a company for various reasons. In fact, the very purpose of my empirical research was to find answers why such a distortion of priorities takes place with far reaching implications affecting all round performance including quality of customer service.
    My findings reveal that many of the reasons for disconnects in policy and practice (read, distortion in priorities) are the result of human and organisational dynamics within the company rather than the country's economic system.
    I urge you to spare some time to read Organisational Schizophrenia: Its Impact on Quality of Customer Service ( . I would look forward to receiving your critique after you have gone through many reasons for disconnects between policy and practice supported by various examples. That might also justify the new perspective I am talking about.

  7. Michael, I have enjoyed reading your interesting blog, “If You Don't Know Where You're Going……and find that our views converge on the kind of issues a company must confront if it has to consistently deliver positive customer experience every time its people handle a moment of truth.

    You have rightly commented that the companies I have talked about in my article "do not have its customer-related priorities in order.” In a sense, my current story begins with the concluding paragraph of your blog. However, there is a twist in the tale.

    My research and the resultant book Organisational Schizophrenia: Impact On Customer Service Quality was triggered by the fact that many reputed companies, known to be highly customer-centric are ending up in wide gaps between promised quality of service and what, in customer's perception actually gets delivered. All these companies know where they are going, they have clear policy directives and they have duly stabilised processes in place. I personally encountered schizophrenic behaviour at different levels of hierarchy within the same company and hence the provocation to explore.

    Interestingly, as broadly spelt out in my article, disconnects between policy and practice arise out human and organisational dynamics. Given, a culture of discipline, however, cultural schizophrenia can be checked in time and the book explains how.

    I am sure you will find the book an interesting read and if you do find time to go through it I would look forward to receiving your feedback. Please do look at the reviews at the website. Thank you.


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