The idea of service minimalism is a very attractive one.  Perfection –  in service design as in other things – is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

I have written before about government being most successful when it is least intrusive and also about the idea that The Best Service is No Service – which is essentially that a great deal of customer contact to any service provider is a symptom of weaknesses in service design or delivery, and that understanding the reasons for contact from the customer’s point of view and in the customer’s language is a route to better customer service and greater operational efficiency.

It’s back in my mind because Bill Price, one of the authors of The Best Service is No Service was in town this week, discussing his approach with a small group of public service delivery people.  I am not going to summarise the arguments of the book – my previous post on this listed the seven core principles on which it is based – but instead I am going to record a slightly random list of points which struck me from the discussion.

The core of Bill’s experience – and the source of many of his examples – is the three years he spent as vice-president of global customer service at Amazon in the formative years from 1999.  That is a huge strength, but does mean that the rest of us who have delivery models not quite as tightly focused as Amazon’s need to aim off a bit.

The starting point for a lot of this is using customer contact as a means of understanding what is working – or not working – in the wider organisation and then doing something about it.  As Bill put it in an interview when he was still at Amazon,

You can have a great overall culture, with real empathy for the customer and passion for fixing the problems. You can have individual reps who say, ‘this customer is really upset, and I have to deal with it.’ I think we do that. What’s missing almost everywhere else is, even if you have the empathy and the passion and you address the customer’s problem, you haven’t really given good customer service in total. You haven’t done that until you have eliminated the problem that caused her to call in the first place.

Typically, contact centres need to respond to demand for contact from customers, but have no influence on the causes of the demand or any ability to communicate problems, still less to get them fixed.  Those parts of the organisation which are generating the demand, meanwhile, may have no inkling of the impact that their activity or inactivity is having on customer contact.  More importantly, they will have no means of using the pattern of contact as a tool for diagnosing the causes of contact.  Amazon went from 360 reason codes which contact centre operators were supposed to record against incoming customer contact to a much shorter list which used customers’ own language and which was simple enough for operators to memorise.  The central question turned out to be, ‘where’s my stuff?’.  That might look obvious for an organisation which is essentially a web site sitting on top of a logistics operation, but it has much wider application – ‘what’s going on, and why hasn’t it happened yet?’ is behind an awful lot of contact.

There are various ways then of understanding the pattern of contact.  One I have found helpful is in the diagram below – looking at value and irritation both from the customer’s point of view and the organisation’s.  Apart from anything else, it challenges the tacit assumption that waste, or avoidable, contact is something defined in terms of the single dimension of organisational value, an assumption to which I suspect public sector organisations may be particularly prone.


That of course depends on knowing which is which.  Bill talked about aiming for an 80% success rate for web transactions. Leaving aside the point that 80% success sounds considerably better than 20% failure, he asserted that most organisations just don’t know whether they are achieving that, because they don’t measure contact success – an assertion which nobody in the room dissented from. More importantly still, a recurrent message is that the irritation is not caused by customer contact; contact is caused by irritation.  That means that waste, irritation, or avoidable contact can only be reduced or eliminated by identifying and removing whatever is causing the irritation in the first place.  Rigorous root cause analysis is the first part of that, but eventually organisations may need to change their entire structures to allow them to focus on what really matters to customers – and Bill strongly argued for charging back the costs of contact to the part of the organisation whose actions or inactions were its cause.

The book itself has many characteristics typical of modern American popular management books:  it is easy to read, well illustrated with telling anecdotes, and longer than it needs to be.  But it’s a much better example of the genre than most, and the core idea is an important and powerful one.  I am not sure that I agree with all of it, but I do know it has made me think.


  1. That makes a lot more sense than simply having a target of reducing avoidable contacts, as Varney appeared to But maybe his thinking behind that target was more nuanced than I realised at the time, I certainly felt it was a target capable of unfortunate misinterpretation…

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