Efficiency vs. customer satisfaction: the search for middle ground

A paragon of future efficiency: every day organisation work to reach the unthinkable. But only a few succeed at it. Or is it a coincidence that authors and public speakers have been referring to the same five examples for years? Far too often efforts result in a dead end street. Improving one domain usually diminishes the efficiency of other processes.

Next thing you know, people start questioning change. “Does our company efficiency really need improving?”, “Isn’t all of this mouldering away at customer satisfaction?”. And then there is that dreaded dilemma: how much efficiency do we sacrifice for customer orientation- and vice versa? How do we even out both?

I would like to like to that a look at that for a minute. Because the question is: are we asking ourselves the right question?
Obviously it is perfectly possible to come up with a very efficient company that only moderately invests in its customers. And it is also possible to be very customer focused, without being highly efficient. At least in theory.

But let’s take a look at the real world. How many examples of companies that are organised very efficiently and yet are not focused on their customers? Governments are often scorned for (over)focusing on their own need for efficiency, whilst paying little or no attention to how their “customers” are dealt with. They lead you on a wild goose chase through the labyrinths of their buildings, then ask you to fill in application form 134B (“three times, please”) which eventually allows you to apply for yet another piece of paper that can be handed in at an entirely different section of that same authority. The very least you can say, is that this is not very customer friendly. But exactly how efficient is such a system of bureaucracy?
It needs to be said: despite the fact that the occasional dinosaur will rear its ugly head, there is actually a lot to be said for how a number of governmental organisations are structured. Most commercial companies could learn a thing or two about how they deal with both efficiency and customer satisfaction.

It is even said about Ikea that they do not always focus on providing a good service to their customers, despite their high levels of efficiency. But don’t we need to ask ourselves if these critics aren’t just barking up the wrong tree? IKEA has a substantial amount of fans, who are more than happy to put in the effort of assembling a bathroom cabinet in exchange for affordable design. Have you noticed that each package contains the precise set of screws? If that weren’t the case, it would no doubt have a horrendous influence on customer satisfaction. And imagine just how well organised the process of putting together these packages needs to be to achieve such results.

The opposite –a customer focused company that is inefficiently organised- conjures up images of Fawlty Towers. Or what about the butcher who wants to know exactly how each and every child is doing at school so that buying a steak takes half a day? How satisfied are you with a gardening service that consists of three exceptionally friendly gardeners –one worker and two spectators- who charge by the hour? And in the category “true story”: how customer focused is the owner of the beach bar who very amicably offers his punters not one, not two, but three freshly baked waffles, when they are all equally badly made? It is one thing to strive for perfection, just make sure the premise doesn’t remain half-baked.

Customer service without efficiency tends to remain stuck in good intentions. And that is why middle ground is probably not what we are looking for. One simply cannot have one without the other. The “charmingly inefficient” but customer focused organisation is a myth. Always was, always will be.

Horst Remes