by Quinn

I used to work for a large private sector company who you will have heard of, and my wife still works there. In the main I left for the usual selfish reasons (lack of promotion, for more money) but also because I was sick of the way the firm was going. The company is a service provider – its product is the service itself paid for by annual subscription – and yet the quality of that service was worsening with every bright idea and reorganisation. The service department where I worked was valued less than those areas of the firm that directly generated income; how you can focus on getting people to buy a service, without paying attention to the quality of that service for those who have already parted with their money, is beyond me. During my time with the company quality of service very much played second fiddle to sales (whereas now I work in the public sector, and quality of service plays second fiddle to hitting government targets).

But give my ex-employers their due. Back “in my day” telephone calls from customers who needed assistance there and then had to be answered within 10 seconds; failure to do so would affect the call handling service level, which was not to fall below 90%. In other words, we aimed to answer at least 90% of all service calls within ten seconds. If the service level threatened to go below 90% then staff in other parts of the firm taking information, customer relations or sales calls were instead instructed to assist us in answering service calls. The priority was to deal with those existing customers who had already paid us their money and who needed our help immediately, before answering the phone to people who were not yet our customers, and who may or may not become customers. Sometimes, of course, particularly in extreme conditions, nothing could be done and the service level would drop well below 90%, but it was considered a bad day when it did so.

But times change and such outmoded practices must be swept away in the name of progress. Nowadays my wife tells me that rather than trying to answer service calls within ten seconds, the aim is to answer these calls within six minutes. One day last week, the service level for such calls was just 24%, a figure that in a more innocent age would have driven senior management to despair; but no longer. No; that day (when only 24% of calls from distraught customers were answered within six minutes) was actually considered a good day, because the service level in the sales department was maintained at 52%. I am being purposefully vague about what my wife’s firm actually does, but if you ever need their assistance, when you are likely to be in a distressing and possibly dangerous situation, you will no doubt be encouraged by this thought. As they already have your money, you are more likely to be left hanging on the phone than someone who isn’t yet a customer, who is sat at home, relaxed and comfortable, making a few calls to get some quotes, because their call is prioritised. One member of staff questioned the wisdom of treating their customers so abysmally, and so it was explained that sales calls were more important than service calls, as without new customers there wouldn’t be anyone to provide a service to, would there?

The short sightedness of this attitude is obvious, to you and to me, to even the dimmest three year old child, perhaps to some animals (certainly dogs), and even to certain inanimate objects, such as kettles; of course it is important to answer calls from people who may provide you with income in the future, but that it is also important to answer calls from people who already do provide your income, and who, if treated well, will continue to do so. Fortunately, a private equity firm currently owns the company, and it seems short sightedness is all that is required when you are in their employ. Overall sales no doubt will improve in the short term, although what will happen to long term customer retention levels is anyone’s guess; but in any event, long term customer retention levels are irrelevant to the current owners of the company, who will sell the firm in around a years time, pocket a handsome profit, and look for another company where they can work their magic. Onwards and upwards.

These days I often come home from my current job frustrated at the way thing are going, dismayed at how the stereotypical image of the public sector as being inefficient and bureaucratic has just been confirmed and played out in front of my eyes. Then I speak to my wife, and she tells me about the latest developments at her work; we swap anecdotes about the way our employers seem to be copying the worst practices from each other, and in a strange way it makes us feel better. If our experiences are typical then I’m not sure that the public and private sectors have all that much to teach each other. It doesn’t seem to matter where you work; everything’s fucked.