Notes from the field of public involvement

Friday, 09 September 2005

Customer Satisfaction and Pressure for Public Service Reform

Looking for a lever to pull to achieve improvement and change? Try customer satisfaction data. That’s the message from a speech in August to the Social Market Foundation made by John Hutton MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office (http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/about_the_cabinet_office/

The speech reflects the frustration and the continued commitment to change and reform. Hutton wants to "harness and manage the modern tools of competition and choice to create a public service delivery system equipped to deliver levels of social justice and equality of opportunity that have always eluded us."

He wants to use a comprehensive customer satisfaction index based on data collected for 'key public service episodes'. This is in line with the modern focus on the customer experience. We know that the old style customer satisfaction annual survey is dangerously misleading: the results are meaningless since there is no way to understand what the level of the customer satisfaction is linked to or driven by.

So you want to focus in on an actual event or 'episode' and understand what it is that is satisfying or dissatisfying the customer. This is challenge number 1 - to identify which episode is 'key' and then how to make sure that the user is asked specifically about that experience. How is the questionnaire to be triggered and what will be the way to contact the user to ask them how they got on - phone? Email? Postcard/letter? How many to send out? How many questions to ask? When to send it out - same day? Three weeks later?

These are important technical questions affecting the design of the survey process as well as the content. Identifying the users and contacting a proportion of them at intervals to be specified will create a huge amount of data. (How many public service episodes are there a day?) All this will add up to spending a shedload of money and stacks of data. However the questions do have solutions.

What is less clear is that the data will be understood and used for improvement. When the idea of regular ‘experience-based’ tracking of customer satisfaction was initially taken up by companies, managers hoped to have access to a powerful lever for change that would bring higher and higher levels of customer satisfaction and loyalty. Companies with this data would sweep the opposition aside.

It did not work out like that - the data was an addition to management information. It did not take over as the sole measure. Also its ability to generate change was by no means a sure thing. The source of the data - the customer - was not a guarantee of action. The usual politics and processes of the organisation did not fade away confronted with the customer view. For a start that view was often difficult to understand because for example the data was contradictory. Customers were often revealed as conservative and backward looking - innovation came from leaders and risk-takers within organisations.

Worth a go though I would have thought. However I do have one final proviso. John Hutton talks about "a comprehensive customer satisfaction index ...applied across sectors". My experience of 'comprehensive' CSIs (customer satisfaction index) is that they are comprehensively ignored because no one ever believes the score actually applies to their own bit of the process. The further away the data gets from the original customer episode in time or as it acquires layer upon layer of aggregation and manipulation, the less the impact, ownership and action.

Keep it simple is a good motto here. Any putative losses in terms of comprehensiveness are more than compensated by data that is easily and quickly gathered and analysed and implemented by front line managers. Anything else will get labelled as being another 'big government' spin meister, smoke and candles, flash in the pan gesture towards users that will not actually ever benefit them.

The speech is available as a PDF here: http://www.smf.co.uk/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&

Colin Adamson | Send feedback