The Six Imperatives of Outstanding Service Quality

For the past three decades I’ve been involved in developing organizational strategies, systems, structures, processes and methods that have helped diverse enterprises and organizations deliver high levels of Quality. Over these years I’ve come to the conclusion that there are just six imperatives that need to be in place for any group of people, an organization or an enterprise, to be able to serve its chosen customers, in a manner that delights them. Without these fundamental factors in place, and being made the basis of how work is done throughout the enterprise, service quality levels are bound to remain unimpressive.

Let me explain these six imperatives.

1. Intention: By intention, I mean the prevalent attitude in the organization and the mental determination in the employees, to achieve certain goals and committed standards. Many organizations erroneously presume that the ‘right intentions’ among the workforce/employees are “already” in place, without any pointed effort on part of the leadership. If people within an organization do not possess the intention to serve their ‘customers’ appropriately, and in a timely manner (very often, the customer for services could very well be another person or department in the larger organization), the very first requirement of creating and delivering outstanding quality in services is not met. How is ‘good intention’ cultivated amongst the people who are part of the process of delivering quality? The intention to serve another in a way that elicits satisfaction and delight, obviously stems from a deep personal and ‘inner’ commitment, coming from within one’s “interiority”. Obviously the right kind of leadership, the reward and recognition arrangements, as well as the communication methods employed in the organization, can play a vital role in creating a culture that encourages the right intentions. In many of the organizations, where the intention to serve does not manifest in the collective, one notices that the interactions between the customers and those providing the services, tend to careless, slipshod, lax and ineffective.

2. Customers and Standards: Organizations delivering products or services need to determine which customers they wish to serve. This is an important because one could choose to serve any one or anybody; but if one has to deliver superior quality – especially when compared to one’s competitors – then it is critical to choose the right customers to serve. For Government organizations offering public goods, those who are to be the beneficiaries become the ‘right’ customers. In such cases, it is critical to establish clear and written-down standards of delivery, which will provide the basis for customers to be served. Service Level Standards could include metrics such as the time it might take to complete a task, the ease of interface between the customers and the personnel of the department, or the ease of comprehension of the service delivery

3. Systematic Process Design: It is important to design a process that will effectively deliver the desired output at the lowest cost. Usually services are made available to customers through a well-designed, and optimized set of processes that enable material, informational and financial flows to be effectively coordinated so that output is delivered as expected, at all times. The process that needs to be in place would cover people, methods, measurements (where applicable), information and funds. The stitching together of the process too, needs to be done thoughtfully in a scientific manner so that the service to be delivered is made available to clients consistently.

4. Continuous Improvement: Unlike a product, where quality is predominantly determined on the basis of the features of a product, in the case of services, every interaction with a service-provider becomes a ‘moment of truth’ for the customer, which shapes the latter’s perception of the quality levels of the service. A ‘moment of truth’ is therefore an opportunity for the service-provider (typically a person who deals with a customer; but also, in these days of advanced technology, even devices such as ATMs or automated vending machines) to delight the customer, by being responsive and by bettering the standards set for the service. Such interactions with customers are a good source of critical and continuous feedback on customer perceptions about the quality of the services being provided. Refinements in the process – based on the feedback – needs to be brought about at regular intervals. As the improvement cycles become more and more robust, and the people involved in delivering the service learn to work closely with one another customers experience delight, and become ‘loyal regulars’.

5. Cross-Functional Networking: Most services are typically developed and delivered as a result of groups of people – with definite expertise – working together. Such people rely on written work instructions, shared information and process design elements to create and deliver the desired output. Large organizations with multiple departments or functions with different people having specific competencies need to work effectively together to deliver outstanding service quality. In fact many of the processes and process standards are the result of people with clarity of the organizational purpose, interacting among themselves and determining the kind of intermediate output that will need to be delivered to the next process. Such interactions, require cross-functional networks to be active and “humming” to tide over any communication gaps, or gaps in understanding, that could adversely impact the desired standards of the output. In many organizations, where such interactions are not common or are not encouraged, service delivery can be adversely impacted. In Government Ministries and departments, inter-ministerial engagement and cross-departmental networking can greatly increase the perceived levels of service quality, by addressing and improving the “value” levers associated with the services being offered.

6. Empowered Front-line Service Providers: A department that interfaced with internal customers of in an organization had to generate shipping documents on a printer and hand these to the clients at the end stage of a complex process. An elaborate IT system provided the ‘backbone’ of the process, and gave rapid access to detailed databases. However, even though departmental personnel had been trained in the use of the new database management system, and the motivation to serve the beneficiaries was high, the satisfaction levels of the customers for over a month had been consistently low. On inquiring into the matter, it was found that each customer had to make multiple trips to the department, because the shipping documents were not printed in ‘one shot’. On further inquiry it was found that one of the specialized printers – at the document delivery point – had malfunctioned and the replacement had not been obtained despite repeated requests to the purchase function. Apparently the procurement processes of the enterprise had kept the matter was lingering.
This rather simple example draws attention to the final point of the six imperatives, namely having front-line, customer-interfacing people who are empowered and capable of solving problems, so that the fundamental organizational mission of delivering superior service, is not impaired. Such personnel are empowered by being supported fully with all the resources, the tools, consumable materials, training inputs, instructions, and measuring devices that are critical for ensuring an uninterrupted delivery of high quality service. Only then can the front-liners deliver value to the customers in time, and in the manner committed.

Putting in place all the six imperatives enunciated above – through good leadership and an organization-wide commitment to service excellence – will make a significant and wholesome impact on the quality of services delivered. Good and effective leadership, at all level, with the tone set at the top, can stimulate an embedding of the six imperatives in the organization’s DNA.