Inside business: Are you being served?

If Britain is a service economy, many customers don't seem to have noticed. Roger Trapp reports
If anybody needs convincing that service is a subjective concept they need only look at figures released last week about how customers feel they are treated in London.

Only 24 per cent of people living and working in the capital claim to be very or extremely happy with the overall level of customer service, according to the survey by Managing the Service Business, a consultancy. In contrast, more than twice as many US visitors felt that way.

But important as perception is, it does not tell the full story. The survey - which drew on responses from overseas and British business, leisure visitors and Londoners - also found that satisfaction levels are generally not as high as they should be in a country that sees itself as a service economy.

Anybody who has struggled around London's transport system in recent weeks will not be surprised to learn that only half of respondents gave the Underground a top rating and fewer than half gave that accolade to the trains and buses.

This is not to say it is all bad news. MSB points to the high ratings given to cabbies and pub landlords, as well as the city's museums and police. Don Porter, joint managing director of MSB, says: "There is a great deal about which to be proud."

But he stresses that "there is still some way to go in attaining excellent levels of customer service and value for money across the board". As well as public transport, hotels below the three-star level need to be looked at urgently, he adds.

Mr Porter also addresses the "clear distinction between the satisfaction levels of overseas and UK visitors". Whether or not expectations are higher among UK residents, work should be done to consider their requirements, he points out.

Organisations keen to see their ratings improve could pick up a few tips from Leonard Berry's new book, Discovering the Soul of Service (Simon & Schuster, pounds 17.99).

Although an academic at Texas A&M University, Professor Berry also advises companies, and this role shows in his identification of "nine drivers of sustainable business success".

The drivers should be familiar to those abreast of current management thinking: values, trust and strategic focus feature strongly. But underlying them all is "executional excellence".

As Prof Berry points out: "A customer does not experience a strategy; a customer experiences the execution of that strategy - that is, the `total product'." In other words, companies can have the best strategy in the world, but that is no good if they do not bring it into being.

This is crucial because in a fiercely competitive world rivals will always be looking to adapt ideas. "Strategy cannot be hidden and success invites imitation," says Prof Berry. "The only option is to outperform competitors. A poorly executed strategy clears a path for competitors to succeed with imitation."

Equally, though, there is little point in devising strategies and even executing them if they are not grounded in the sort of things sought by customers. Prof Berry talks of "values-driven leadership" and "humane organisational values", pointing out that the best service providers realise the importance of inspiring people. Some organisations, such as the US travel firm Rosenbluth, recognise this to the extent of saying that the customer comes second (to the employee).

However, for all the attention being given to customer service, perhaps things have moved on a stage. Tim Brown of the product design company Ideo, for instance, believes that what the customer is increasingly looking for is an "experience".

For somebody like him - grounded in coming up with products and services which "add value" - that is obviously a challenge. But it is also a contest for all those organisations that ensure their staff smile but cannot be sure customers will remember where they were the last time someone said "have a nice day".