Piers Dillon-Scott


How good companies fail their customers

Great companies don't intend to provide bad services. But politics, time & growth frequently move companies further away from their customers' needs.

Perhaps it’s just an urban legend, or perhaps there’s some science to it, but they say that pets often come to resemble their owners (or, perhaps, it’s the other way around). As crazy as it to think that our pets can take on our traits, it’s not crazy to say that companies’ politics and internal machinations are often reflected in their customer-facing services.

Flatter companies tend to produce products and services that are more tightly integrated; while more complicated, politics-led organisations often produce complicated and disconnected product and services.

Over the years we’ve seen small, focused companies become large complicated ones, and we’ve seen this reflected in the overall type and quality of the services they provide to their customers. I say ‘overall’ for a reason. As companies grow the quality of their individual services tends to increase – they become better at providing their existing services to their existing customers; but customers rarely stand still – as their customers change the company’s existing services become out-dated and often unnecessary.

companies’ politics and internal machinations are reflected in their customer-facing services

Growth and distance

As companies grow, two things tend to happen,

  • they become better at meeting their current consumers’ needs, but as the market changes, and as their consumers’ needs change, they lose touch with their customers (think of the Innovator's’ Dilemma)
  • as the company grows departmental politics creates silos. Departments that should talk to each other don’t, this results in confused services and customer frustration.

Ultimately, these two trends fuel each other. The internal politics (rather than customer need) dictates changes to products and services, which then moves the company further away from its customers.

On a basic level, this cycle shows itself in messy websites, costly customer support, and poor in-store experiences. On a more significant level such an internal focus shows itself in increased customer churn.

Given this, customers will either move to a competitor, or complain. If they do complain this is often in vain, as the customer service department is largely siloed from other departments. Complaints become another cause of frustration for the customer. As well as another cost for the company.

Customers don’t see, or indeed, care about these silos, yet it is these silos that often cause the most significant customer complaints.

Designing the service

Most companies, when they notice that their customers are becoming disengaged try to fix the problem by hurrying new products to market (causing more internal confusion and political in-fighting).

Successful companies fix these problems by focusing on redesigning themselves; specifically, redesigning how people (staff, suppliers, customers etc.) interact with infrastructure (this can be anything from a cash register to the layout of a waiting room). Relatively recently this has become known as Service Design.

Despite its recent popularity, service design isn’t a new concept. The idea, in its modern sense, has been understood since at least the ‘50s,

Long ago, the wise men of the petroleum industry realized that one gasoline looks the same as another. The consumer rarely sees it at all. To compete intelligently, therefore, it was advisable to give the product a personality through good service and facilities. Today they know they are selling service Henry Dreyfuss, Designing for People, 1955

Design thinking

Good service design allows companies to streamline their business, and identify new methods of delivering improved services to customers. And any process that involves the interaction of people, services, and technology can be redesigned (even how we vote can be radically improved with some service design thinking).

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