I have just been at the QUIS2013 conference in Karlstad, Sweden. The final session was a panel discussion with the title "Small Details: What They Are and Why They Matter". The panels, which included a mix of academics and managers, started by providing a few examples of small details and why they matter is services. Janet McColl Kennedy, a Professor from the University of Queensland, told a story about an elderly person in a care home, who when asked "what could we do to make your life better", replied "let me have a real cup of coffee in the morning". The chair of the panel (Professor Ruth Bolton from Arizona State University) countered, by saying "I'm Canadian, so for me it would have to be tea". This short exchange illustrated the importance of small details. To get the service right you have to deliver services which are personalised, contextualised and time dependent. Manfred Dasselaar, a service manager at Ericsson, built of this theme, describing the challenge of getting customers to understand how hard Finnish engineers were working on solving their queries when the customers and engineers were not co-located. He gave the example of a conference call involving Finnish engineers and their external customers. The customers were getting frustrated that they were not getting much from the engineers (they weren't communicating much, but then they were Finnish). Because the customers were not in the room they could not see that although they were not talking much, the Finnish engineers were sharing images and data on their computer screens - screens that the customers could not see. Once the customers understood how the engineers were communicating and how hard they were working on solving the problems, they became much happier. Again an illustration of how small details can influence the service experience.
So who delivers these small details and how do they make sure they are time, person and context dependent? Often the staff at the front line - often the least trained and least well paid people in the organisation, but those closest to the customers. Should we give these staff more autonomy? Should we train them and seek to create an organisational culture which allows service providers to personalise the service experience? At first blush the obvious answer is yes - this might provide a new and sustainable way of competing. But there are three issues with this first blush response. First, by personalising the service we can increase the cost and complexity of the service - we lose the efficiency gains that can be driven by standardisation and commoditisation. Second, by personalising the service we can create inconsistencies in customer experiences. If every time you are served by a different server and you get a slightly different personalised version of the service then how frustrated do you become when one server fails to do that special thing for you that the previous server did. Third, the more we use technology in services, the more we end up standardising the service. This drives efficiency, but does it deliver the best customer experience? Are automated voice systems better than talking to real people?
It seems to me there's a careful service design and delivery tradeoff to be understood here. Clearly personalising services and tailoring them to individuals in time and context can enhance the service experience, but at what cost in terms of efficiency and consistency? In designing and delivery services we need to be clear about the boundaries - where the scope for personalisation lies and where we should standardise and control. Going too far in either direction is going to result in disaster.
Professor Andy Neely is Director of Cambridge Service Alliance at the University of Cambridge, and a world authority on performance management and complex services.