Monday, 17 January 2011

Speaking personally

Personalisation in the provision of public services is the order of the day. But if you are a provider, how can you relate to customers individually if you treat yourself as a functionary?

One of the first acts of John King (later Lord King of Wartnaby), when he joined British Airways as its chairman in 1980, was to tell all office managers to remove their job titles from their door plates and replace them with their names. And when writing memos to one another (before the days of email) we must in future write from our name to someone else’s name, and not from one job title to another. Of course, we knew that we would still be communicating as jobholders in our roles, but that didn’t need to be said. As I remember it, we were bemused but compliant – everybody was where the eponymous and fearsome King was concerned. King’s leadership was tough love (well, at least the former).

I was reminded of this incident recently. Having become embroiled in a car parking infringement with my council, I took up the cause of my local car dealer, who I had been visiting. The dealer’s premises backed directly onto a public car park, but its manager had been unable to obtain any concessions from the council, such as designated places for short-stay customers, or a drop-off point, in return for an annual fee. I arranged for the car dealer manager to speak to the car parking manager. The latter told me that my own attendance was unnecessary, and that the dealer’s manager should contact her by telephone, and she didn’t need to meet him personally. She then informed me that it would be a case of the car dealership speaking to the Council, rather than its manager to her as such, even though she would handle the matter. She was correct in law, of course, but why was it important for her to say it, or for me to be reminded of the obvious? Was she shielding behind her role – as we used to in British Airways? Or was this just the habit of officialdom – the way bureaucracy works?

If the car dealer eventually wins a concession, how nice it would be if he could thank her personally and think of the decision as a refection of her nature? When we receive help and kindness from a shop assistant with a name badge, we like to acknowledge the person; we would not expect a response such as ‘Marks & Spencer likes to take good care of its customers’. Personal exchanges don’t undermine business relationships: they bolster them. So the thought arises: when under government pressure to offer ‘personalisation’, how can providers of public services be expected to treat members of the public as individuals, with their own needs and wants, if the individual providers remain half-hidden behind a mask that puts their employer and their role to the fore?

In hindsight, Lord King’s edict was the act of a leader. He was disturbing the status quo, taking us out of our comfort zone, preparing us for much more change round the corner. His personalisation agenda was the first step in a much larger process of culture change, loosening up our bureaucracy, and humanising us, as we moved from our heritage as a nationalised industry towards privatisation and ‘putting the customer first’. Loosening our roles went along with using our common sense and discretion, and not simply following the rule book. Years later I had the personal opportunity to replace company ‘regulations’ with ‘guidance for managers’, coupled with permission for them to use their own judgement.

Letting the mask slip a little might make that social journey away from one-size-fits-all bureaucracy a little easier.

By a strange coincidence, today is King Day, in celebration of the life on another leader, one who was in a league of his own - Martin Luther King.