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I recently decided to cash in a long-held investment, and at first I thought I was going to be pleasantly surprised by the ease with which it might be achieved. Almost as easy as when they take the money off you in the first place. But then the true nature of the financial services industry kicked in.
Going online to sell the shares took only a few minutes: insert the certificate number, personal details and share quantity, receive a current valuation based on today's price, press the 'Accept' button, and job done.
But then comes the bureaucracy and time wasting. This is an organisation that has been crediting my personal bank account with dividends for over a decade, but now I'm cashing in my chips, they have to raise a cheque. And that will take them up to ten days to manage.
No matter. It will no doubt eventually arrive, and in due course it does. On a Tuesday.
Now I have to pay it into my bank - the Cooperative, as it happens, so not blessed with an abundance of branches. Of course what I usually do with the few small cheques received these days is to stick them in an envelope and post them to the bank.
This is a sizeable sum of money though, so I think, I'll take it in person to a branch. I have to go to Banbury, so consult the net to see if there is a Coop in the vicinity. Miracle of miracles, there is: a Britannia Building Society, now owned by the Coop (I had no idea), but which doubles as a Coop outlet, and into which I can pay my ill-gotten gains. Which I do.
Come Friday, three days on, and I think, I'll just check my account (the wonders of telephone banking) and, sure enough, a reassuringly high figure is intoned by the computer. So I think, I should transfer a goodly proportion of it to my deposit account: let's talk to an 'Advisor'.
Who advises me that my cheque was only 'received' yesterday (Thursday - are you still with me?) so while, technically, it is showing as a credit, in practical terms I can't actually touch it till Monday, and technically it won't 'clear' until Wednesday - SIX working days.
I know the poor soul who took my call is only reading what the computer says, but I was spitting feathers.


Let's face it, you may have a profitable enterprise that is growing like topsy, but if you're a miserable bastard who doesn't know when or how to have a bit of fun, the chances are your people are just working for the pay cheque.

So today it's the banks getting it with both barrels (again). I really don't have to gild the lily by elucidating what could and should have been the quicker, simpler process of getting hold of my own money.

But what I find interesting is the motivation. Clearly both organisations have the technology and resources to have achieved the necessary outcome in hours rather than weeks, yet still they cling to outmoded systems. Why is that?

They all pay lip-service to how responsive they are, what wonderful personal service they give, yet the reality is nearly always the same: providing your requirements fit in with their rigid processes, all is ticketty-boo. As soon as you ask for something that is properly personal, the shutters come down. The computer says, "No."

Yet it is this very differentiation - the ability to systemise the routine and personalise the exceptions - that defines the businesses we think of as giving great service - and the rest.

For not dissimilar reasons, I recently had to sack my milkman. He had recently purchased his round from the dairy and is therefore now a small business in his own right (though really all he really owns is a job, not a business, but I digress).

Unfortunately, he obviously figured that now he was no longer beholden to his employers, he could give the service that suited him, which included:
Coming at 10.00am instead of 5.00am, so that if you had a morning meeting elsewhere, the milk sat on the step for hours.
Instead of delivering one pint on each of Monday, Wednesday and Friday, bringing two on Monday and none on Wednesday. By Thursday, one was frequently on the turn.
Occasionally not coming at all, with no explanation or apology.

Interestingly, when I left him the note cancelling the service (incorporating all of the above), he didn't even bother to knock the door to ask if there was anything he could do to reverse the decision. There probably wasn't, but still. How long will he stay in business, I wonder.

Cashing a cheque, delivering a bottle of milk: it's not exactly rocket science, is it? So how do organisations - large and small - manage to make such a pig's ear of such simple activities?

All that is required is for them to just put themselves in the shoes of their customers: "If I were one of our customers, how would I feel about this or that?" And then ACT ON IT.

Service is essentially an attitude of mind. Everyone needs systems for a business to function efficiently, but when those systems are allowed to suppress what is necessary for acceptable customer service, they need amending or over-riding.

One way of checking what the outside world makes of you and your 'offering' is to get a few objective outsiders to mystery shop it. I used to organise such things for some of the big retailers, but it works just as well at a micro level. Think about it.

David Croydon: 01844 238692 or e-mail

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David Croydon

Hilltop Consultancy
Business Advice Oxford, Oxfordshire