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.


  1. This is a thoughtful contribution. There is a real danger of “customer service” and “being customer-centred” becoming a religion in the public sector to the extent that the words are intoned and not thought about. Not that I want to imply religion need be like that!

    One major point is that the service provider or the commissioner is often choosing the standards on which to make commitments without really engaging with the users. A persistent example of this in the NHS was a focus on speed (which made sense to the accountants as well as having SOME medical benefits) rather than compassion, responsiveness and politeness to patients, though there was plenty of evidence that these were very important to patients and those close to them. This contributed to the situation in which vulnerable old people were not treated like human beings: I speak from experience having seen, in the last few years, my aged mother treated generally with great sensitivity (but there were exceptions) while two of her sisters in their last months were bullied, ignored and passed around like an unwelcome invoice.

    A more fundamental issue is that it is that different individuals’ interests and wishes may conflict and it may not be possible to satisfy them all. Resolving that sort of situation is called politics and it is often the responsibility of the public sector to resolve for good reasons. If some people want trees in a park cut down to provide a vista (or reduce safety risks) while others want them preserved for their beauty or for wildlife benefit, some people will be left dissatisfied. If a family with multiple problems are receiving social care and advice, but there is a suspicion they’re abusing their children (or threatening neighbours), a focus purely on satisfying the original customer can be downright dangerous. This is not for a mpment to talk down the need to be responsive to people using services, but many public services cannot be handled as if they were on supermarket shelves, and the skill of co-operating and compromising on common issues is one of the basic glues of society and one of the key motors for our evolution from apes.

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