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The Vision Vacuum
The one where we wonder what's happening in the UK
I’ve recently had two fascinating conversations with friends who are back in the UK after a while away. And they both had the same question for me: what is going on?
They weren’t talking about the revolving door of number 10, the implosion at Twitter, or the sudden success of my beloved Arsenal F.C., but rather, about the state of customer experience (which makes sense, given what I do).
Apathetic colleagues, hidden contact details, and long wait times. Uncared-for premises, a lack of ownership, a feeling of rivalry between customer and company. A switch from ‘the customer is always right’ to ‘the customer is probably wrong and trying to pull a fast one on us’, where an organisation answering the phone within a couple of minutes is now a cause for delight.
We can all feel it, even if we can’t describe it. It’s like organisations have given up trying, and customers have given up expecting.
But what’s causing it? Is it Covid? Brexit? Inflation? All triggers for the type of cost-cutting we saw in 2008. Is it a generational thing, or working from home, causing a lack of connection between colleagues and their employers? A lack of interest in work, with quiet quitting and Bare Minimum Mondays? Perhaps it’s a symptom of the short-termism that surrounds us, with shareholders and Private Equity firms wanting a quick return on their money rather than building a long-term, sustainable business.
One of these conversations was with futurist Bronwyn Williams, who was visiting from South Africa. She captured her view in one of her daily ‘Signals’ videos (which I highly recommend):
‘Is customer service becoming a luxury in highly competitive markets? I’ve been struck with the lack of service in the UK compared to South Africa, where companies have to work harder to get the attention of customers, to justify taking the money of customers. I’ve been shocked in the UK by how low the bar is for customer service. It almost seems to be about how much you can get away with not doing.
Any sensible business wants to reduce costs as much as possible, but there is a maximum return to cutting costs. Once you’ve crossed that point and you’ve stopped adding value you don’t have to add, you’ve stripped away everything but the basics, you end up not having any value to your customers that cannot be competed with’
I see a lot of truth in this, but what I’m fascinated by is how exactly this is happening. Every day I work with senior people in organisations across every industry – and they all care. And I visit frontline teams in contact centres across the country – and they all seem to care. And I run workshops with people from right across the company – and they all seem to care.
And then I had my second conversation of the week, with the brilliantly insightful Matt Taylor who’s just moved back to the UK after several years in California. He articulated it in a way that I’ve spectacularly failed to do:
‘It’s a vision vacuum’
Matt’s view is, for all the problems in America, they all have a vision, an idea of what they’re working towards, an idea that they’re working towards a better country and a better company. And that’s what we’re missing in the UK. Colleagues don’t know what they’re working towards, and senior leaders don’t have a clear vision for what the experience is they want to create, something that helps channel effort and initiatives in the right direction, something that galvanises the team, motivating them to make things better for customers.
And this does chime with what I see. As Charlie Dawson writes in The Customer Copernicus, it’s that prevailing, inside-out view, the one that keeps leaders closer to their own business than what really matters to their customers, the one that keeps leaders focussed on their competitors more than the alternatives, the one that keeps leaders focussed on short-term financial and NPS measures than long-term, customer-led success.
If organisations really want to make things better for customers, it has to start with a galvanising vision, a clear, articulated view of the specific experience you want to create, distinct from competitors and alternatives, that everyone in the organisation is aligned behind. And perhaps that, more than anything else, is what we’re missing.
As Stephen Covey used to say, you have to begin with the end in mind.