ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum


Online Edition - February 2001

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Issue Highlight — Back To The End Of The Line
- Peter Block explores why the customer has become less important and what this means for those who care about employee development and organizational change.

 In This Issue...
Quality At Lightning Speed
My Hero!
Two Heads Are Better Than One
Leader Of The Pack


 Features...
Peter Block Column
Views for a Change
Pageturners
Heard on the Street


Return to NFC Index


  One From Column B                                                                         Peter Block

                                       ne From Column B                                             
Back To The End Of The Line

It is disturbing that after so many years of growing interest in the value and involvement of the employee, institutional attention has reverted back to economics and cost reduction. This column is an attempt to understand this shift and what it means for all of us.

  To understand why employees are being marginalized, we might look at what is happening to the customer. For example, have you noticed that:

   • The Verizon cellular phone store in town is no longer open on Saturday?
   • The store manager at Circuit City gets very grumpy when you return a new
      TV because the picture was too dark?
   • When you call an airline and want to talk to a person, instead of answering the       phone, they tell you how long you will have to wait, and how much better it will
      be if you contact them online?

  You can add your own version to these stories, and then realize how often you run
into consumer-unfriendly practices of bringing a product to market before it is ready,
and more subtly, the ways companies raise prices by reducing quantity. Put all of
this together and you conclude that after a decade of growing supremacy, the
customer is slipping back into the pre-1980s status of minor inconvenience. As customers, we don’t come first anymore. We are literally on hold. However, it would bother me less if each of the above actions were not presented under the cliché banner
of how important customers are and how everything is being done for the sake of customer service.

  So why has the customer become less important? And what does this mean for
people who care about employee development and organizational change?

The End of Competition

  I think in many cases the customer is a victim of disappearing competition. The survivors of the merge and purge decades of the ‘80s and ‘90s now find that they
are no longer so worried about competition and therefore no longer so worried about customers. Most locally owned stores have been driven out of business and the
national companies have conveniently divided up the spoils.

  We now have fewer choices of banks, pharmacies, bookstores, gas stations, lumberyards, grocery stores, department stores, eating establishments, airlines and
TV cable companies, just for starters. Granted there are more choices in some areas such as movie theatres, hot sauce and ways to send a package, but in general, fewer and fewer institutions have a larger and larger hand in controlling their industry and ultimately us, the customer.

  There is enough competition to avoid monopoly, but despite the public rhetoric
about so called “free markets,” the competition has been reduced enough that the
prior obsession about customers has been shifted to an obsession about costs—and
the favorite answer to lower costs is to automate everything. The customer is driven
to an online transaction where the interaction is electronic, low cost and human
beings are increasingly obsolete.

  One effect of this is that businesses no longer care about or invest in employees.
When businesses were worried about competition, and therefore customers, it forced them to worry about employees. The focus on staying ahead of the competition in the early 1980s gave rise to the empowerment movement, to employee participation and involvement, the total quality movement and a generally experimental attitude that
placed employees at the center. The belief was that a satisfied employee led to a satisfied customer.

  These efforts are now in a recession in most industries. Since they are less worried about customers, they treat employees as a cost, and an inconvenient one at that.

Customers Contribute to the Problem

  If organizations are obsessed with costs, this is mirrored by the mindset of most customers. Customers have also decided to care more about cost and speed than quality of human service. As customers, we have flocked to the large chain stores to save our 10-15 percent and to the Internet for speed and home delivery. If there are
fewer people to serve us, and if we are offered a lower quality product for a lower
price, we don’t mind. We want more.

  This focus on cost over service has its effects. Human interaction is increasingly devalued and treated as a luxury. In the business of training and development, there
is a miserliness about time that is a symptom of the problem. Trainers are now busy transforming the training experience into a reading experience. They are cutting back
live, in-person learning events and moving them online and long distance. The training
is sold as self directed, just-in-time learning, responsive to the modern pressures of
time and speed.

  It is a modern version of programmed instruction with a new romantic twist because
we have bought the idea that “everything online” is the wave of the future and therefore progress.

  This might be true, but it is more likely all about cost and with the effect that
employees are now peripheral and not worth investing in, just as the levels of
customer service we were accustomed to, are no longer necessary. We are willing
to sacrifice the quality that comes from depth, relationship and live action, for
low-cost experiences. Just as citizens and consumers we are willing to sacrifice community and a vibrant downtown for low-cost purchasing.

  The feeling that employees are no longer critical is found in wider circles than just training and development. For years now, most jobs have been under scrutiny to be automated, outsourced or exported. The devaluing of employees is not caused by
a shift in values among management, nor do I think the obsession with stock price is really driving the cost cutting. I think the real threat to employee well being and
customer satisfaction is the growing number of virtual monopolies in the private
sector. When you dominate your industry or segment, you stop worrying about customers and employees.

What to do?

  The scale of all of this is pretty large, so no single action on our part is going to
shift things. Plus, since most recessions are cyclical, even ones of the human spirit,
we can ride it out and wait for the day when people are important again.

  If, however, waiting is not an adequate action plan, as customers we can address
the larger question of fewer choices from fewer and larger suppliers. Short of joining
the picket lines at a WTO or Nafta convention, become an activist consumer. Name exactly what you object to in the customer transaction and let organizations know electronic transactions are not the same as good service. We can also use our buying power as a political act. This means paying a little more, leaving the house and
shopping at locally owned stores.

  In the workplace, we can at least not collude with the trivialization of employees.
We may have to put our training and development services online, but we don’t have
to act like it is a good idea. We can choose to reject the idea that hiring bonuses
and staying bonuses are the answer to employee retention. We can decide to value
face-to-face relationships and deepen them whenever we get the chance.

  Seeing clearly what is happening around us will also bring its own resolution. There
is a small opening in the dot-com devolution, which is a wakeup call about the illusory quality of the collective, mainstream wisdom about an electronic future. We can
choose not to believe the version of reality promoted by the business press. They will
be the last to note the end of competition, the hollowness of the free market and the irrelevance of the employee and customer.

  Reestablishing the voice of the customer and the employee are causes we have to
take up once again. A worthwhile crusade, even if, at the moment, we lack the real means to do so.

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