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The customer should always come first

The service sector needs to alter its priorities, writes Roger Trapp
Given the wide acceptance that Britain's service industries are in better shape than the "manufacturing base", it comes as a surprise to hear it suggested that factories could have something to teach the likes of banks and insurers.

And yet Steve Smith, chairman of the consultancy Quest Worldwide, is adamant that efforts made by the car industry, in particular, to bring itself up to the production standards set by Toyota leave much of the financial services industry standing.

Dr Smith argues that car companies are much more efficient and customer- focused than a lot of banks and other operators in the financial sector.

The combination of efficiency and customer service is deliberate, and Dr Smith believes that the continuing difficulties experienced by companies in a range of sectors have a lot to do with the tendency to concentrate on one aspect at the expense of others.

Banks have recently put a great deal of effort into establishing call centres. But although these are commonly described as "customer service centres", they are actually much more about efficiency. The effect is a short-term boost to profits through the savings made, but in the long term, business suffers because customers are alienated, he says.

In the competitive environment in which most organisations find themselves, strategy, agility and energy are essential for survival, Dr Smith says.

"None of them is enough on its own. There's got to be a holistic blend," he says.

"Business energy is the buzz, the adrenaline, the can-do spirit" that blends strategy and lean service by mobilising people into action. The importance of ensuring that all three elements to the concept are present can be seen in all the failed initiatives introduced by countless companies over the years. As Dr Smith says, such problems arise because even the best efforts can be counter-productive if they are not strategically driven and if it is not obvious to all how they fit in with the general aims of the organisation.

Dr Smith feels that is especially challenging at a time when so much management emphasis is on creating "shareholder value".

"The most important value is customer value," says Dr Smith. "Just looking at it as cost reduction is missing the point - it's a small part of the equation."

It is the traditional financial services industry's continuing inability to refocus itself around the customer that has created the space in which Virgin and other new entrants can thrive, Dr Smith says.

The company builds its database around the individual customer and uses that information to come up with appropriate products rather than the other way around. Indeed, it is this fundamental focus on products that arguably makes many financial organisations less service companies than versions of old-fashioned manufacturers.

In keeping with his policy of abandoning the either/or in favour of a holistic approach, Dr Smith talks of organisations needing to commit themselves to "radical evolution". The idea is that, while revolution can sometimes be too much for an organisation, evolution is not enough to ensure it is doing enough to remain competitive.

Consider the example of the Co-operative Bank, which a decade ago looked in danger of being squeezed between the big high-street clearers and new, mainly American, entrants to the UK market. The bank had comparatively few branches, but was good at serving customers, so it came up with a number of ideas for building on that strength. It pioneered the gold card for life; it was one of the first to follow First Direct into telephone banking; it set up call centres that put a premium on the quality of service; and, famously, it introduced its ethical banking policy.

The last initiative is a classic case of an organisation seeking to appeal strongly to certain customers - in this case, customers increasingly made up of professionals concerned about what banks were doing with their money - rather than seeking to be all things to all people.

The policy is seen as critical to the strong profits the bank has enjoyed in recent years. As Dr Smith says: "Instead of being squeezed out, it's got a niche."

But the problem for the Co-op, as with any other organisation that does well, is sustaining its success in an increasingly competitive environment. After all, it is not so long ago that Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer seemed unable to do no wrong. In the words of Dr Smith: "Success breeds success, but it also breeds complacency."

Hence the need for "radical evolution".