As I was getting money out of a cash machine, I saw a proud boast in the window of the bank, highlighting one of the commitments in their customer charter:
We will aim to serve the majority of customers within 5 minutes in our branches
Pause, if you will, to savour that masterpiece of wording. Their intention, which they may or not achieve, is to serve a majority of their customers, a group into which you may or may not fall, within five minutes.
At an overall level, that is testable: counting average queuing times is relatively straightforward, though on a strict (if somewhat unlikely) interpretation, almost half their customers could have been waiting for much longer than five minutes, and the target could still have been achieved. But for any individual customer, it is not: is my ten minute wait a sign that the commitment has been broken or an expected outlier? There is no way of telling.
To their credit, the bank concerned does a pretty good job of being transparent about how they are doing, even though slightly oddly, the ‘goals’ which add up to this particular commitment don’t seem to allow them (or us) to know whether or not they are actually delivering their promise or to know what level of improvement there has been – if any – since the commitment was made. But they are willing to be at least a bit self-critical, which is usually a promising sign:
In November we measured queue times in our 300 busiest branches. 75% of customers were served within 5 minutes and the average waiting time was 4 minutes. We know, however, that there are times and places where customers have waited longer and we have much more to work on.
My point though is not to point the finger at the bank concerned. Rather, it is to observe that it is difficult to be clear about the nature of a customer service standard, and harder still to be clear about appropriate values for any measure chosen. That that is true in retail banking, which has not had a reputation for delivering the acme of customer service in recent years, is perhaps no great surprise. But if it is hard there, how much harder is it for public services, where the value of good service can be harder to pin down.
So there are probably lessons here in both directions. The fact that a large bank is struggling to make sense of, still less achieve, the apparently simple ambition of having short queues in its branches should help public sector managers, often of much more complicated and variable services recognise the scale of their challenge and the difficulties inherent in meeting it. And perhaps too, it should help private sector managers appreciate that however hard it is for them to get this right, theirs is the easier task.