MANAGEMENT+: The queue is an opportunity

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Stuart Crainer continues his series on how organisations are measuring up to their promises in treating customers

A friend in publishing was one of the first to treat a mobile phone as an umbilical cord. Everywhere he went, his mobile was sure to follow. Then he discovered - after a surprisingly hefty bill - that his trusty mobile had been cloned. The mobile phone company acted promptly when he asked them to close the line down and promised to sort out a new phone.

And then there was silence. For five months, he waited. The only reminder that he had once been a mobile addict was the arrival every month of a bill for his old line. Understandably, he ignored the bills. The bills eventually stopped and he began to enjoy life without a mobile. Then he received a letter from the phone company's solicitors requesting immediate payment or they would take him to court.

This had gone far enough. He called the company and requested that they call off their legal team and sort out a new phone and number as promised. The company immediately apologised for the legal letter. But how about the phone? Could they send one immediately? Well, no, they couldn't do that. To give anyone a new phone and number required a credit rating and as he didn't pay his bills he wouldn't meet their criteria. If he filled out a new application form, they would see what they could do. He didn't.

Byzantine rules and administrative vacuums are not the sole preserve of telecommunications giants. Take your local plumber, builder or joiner. Virtually all of them now carry mobile phones and many have computers at home. The point of there machines - unless we have been misled - is to make communication easier. But often communication is non-existent. Mobile phones simply enable plumbers to say, "I'll just finish this job and be round in an hour or so."

The hour can stretch into weeks. I can recall one kitchen designer, four loft insulators, one builder, one electrician and one decorator who have either not turned up or have inspected jobs and departed promising to be in touch, only never to be seen again. It could be personal, but all they need to say is "No thanks, the job's not for me" and I would be happy.

You can forget that these people are in business and you are a prospective customer. Their aim is to make money from carrying out their work. "The earliest I could get to that would be in four months," someone told me the other day, shaking his head in characteristic fashion. I thought: poor man, he's rushed off his feet; he must be good. But, perhaps I should have thought: why doesn't he train some more people and meet the obvious demand?

Waiting to be served is always a nightmare - and it doesn't matter if you are waiting to buy stamps, queuing up to check-in at the airport or waiting for the plumber. Any company which can cut the waiting time or make it more pleasant is gaining an advantage. Few bother.

The busiest time of day for many businesses is lunchtime. People leave their offices and attempt to catch up on all the things they should have bought. If they go to the post office they will inevitably find a long line of people looking at their watches. Post offices, and many other organisations actually appear to reduce their customer service at the busiest time of day. (And I know their staff need to buy things as well, but they could stagger their lunch hours.) To make matters worse, post offices now have walls full of advertisements. They are basically cashing in on bad service.

Much the same applies to banks. If you are thinking of opening a bank account or changing banks, try going into a few branches. There are two banks where I live. Go into one and you will invariably have to wait. If there is no other customer, you still have to wait. Obviously, if there are no customers bank staff retreat to their desks to sift enthusiastically through piles of paper. When you enter they all look up and then immediately look back deskwards. Eventually, someone will come and serve you. You almost feel guilty.

Across the road is another bank. That is always busier, but there are rarely queues. If the bank manager sees more than two people waiting, he opens up another counter. Good service is not that difficult really.