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Customer Service, or serving customers

23 June 2016

It’s been said that there are two kinds of people: those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don’t. I don’t know about this. But I do know that there are two kinds of companies: those that believe in Customer Service and those that believe in serving customers (leaving aside those that believe in neither). I’ll call them CS and sc (asking government people to read sc as serving citizens, so as not to contradict last week’s TWOG).

Serving customers is not some sort of technique, not a program. It’s a way of life, a philosophy of doing business. Treating customers well because that makes you more $$$ is not sc; it’s CS. In contrast, sc is making more money because you treat your customers well. There’s a difference, namely what comes first in your head. Sure you charge properly for what you give, knowing that if your customers are satisfied, they will come back.

It’s been said that there are two kinds of people: those who believe there are two kinds of people and those who don’t. I don’t know about this. But I do know that there are two kinds of companies: those that believe in Customer Service and those that believe in serving customers (leaving aside those that believe in neither). I’ll call them CS and sc (asking government people to read sc as serving citizens, so as not to contradict last week’s TWOG).

Serving customers is not some sort of technique, not a program. It’s a way of life, a philosophy of doing business. Treating customers well because that makes you more $$$ is not sc; it’s CS. In contrast, sc is making more money because you treat your customers well. There’s a difference, namely what comes first in your head. Sure you charge properly for what you give, knowing that if your customers are satisfied, they will come back.

What do the employees see when a customer walks in the door: $$ or a person? Put those employees on commission and guess what they see. (“Now, how about a luxurious little Lincoln to go with your beautiful new Rolex watch? Try it on and see how good they look together!”) Put the company on the stock market, under the influence of people who can’t see past $$, and guess what everyone else is expected to see. Most big companies started with sc—that is what enabled them to grow big.  I admire the few that have managed to remain so after they went public.

I am told by someone inside Johnson & Johnson that it is one of these. Its website says that its Credo was developed by Robert Wood Johnson in 1943, “just before it became a publicly traded company…. Our Credo is more than just a moral compass. We believe it’s a recipe for business success. The fact that Johnson & Johnson is one of only a handful of companies that have flourished through more than a century of change is proof of that.” I can’t vouch for this, but the following, excerpted from the Credo, does sound right: 

We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services….

We are responsible to our employees, the men and women who work with us throughout the world…. They must have a sense of security in their jobs…. 

We are responsible to the communities in which we live and work and to the world community as well. We must be good citizens….

Our final responsibility is to our stockholders… When we operate according to these principles, the stockholders should realize a fair return.

What does sc feel like? That’s easy; you can’t miss it. For example, recently we couldn’t find an iPhone and reported it lost to our phone company. Later we we found it and called back. There was no voice saying “We appreciate your business” while forcing us to wait interminably. (If a company appreciates my business, why doesn’t it treat my time as important as its own?) Instead, Patricia (can’t remember her actual name) answered quickly and was genuinely delighted to hear that we found it. Genuinely—the two of us were charmed by the delight in her voice. I can’t speak for that whole company, but I can tell you that the Patricia’s of this world should be staffing the call centers, not to mention the executive suites.

Then there’s that wonderful waiter in a delightful restaurant in Quebec City, charmingly called Le Cochon Dinge (The Wacky Pig). The happiest, jolliest, friendliest waiter we have ever encountered. I can’t tell you his name because he was not programmed to say when we arrived: “Hello, my name is Mestipho and I will be your server today!!”

What does CS feel like? For me, alienating. How about the programmed greeters at the entrance to the Walmart stores. One time, on a weekday afternoon, I wished they had put this person inside the store, to clean up the god-awful mess of merchandise strewn all over the shelves. And then there’s our dear old airline, so devoted to CS. Try booking at the last minute an Air Canada flight from Montreal to Boston, which takes less than an hour in the air. The fare is $1066, one way ($2132 return, if you are not good at math).  Guess what:  Air Canada has a monopoly on that route. Guess what: Air Canada can’t see past this monopoly, to its customers who fly elsewhere too. To hell with those who need to go to Boston. How about to hell with Air Canada when we need to go elsewhere.

And this brings us to $CS$: treat well only those customers with tons of $$$ who spend it lavishly. This requires that they sort the customers the moment they walk in the door, between those who get CS and those who get dismissed. I said to a Honda salesmean [whoops, a typo!]: “Can you please give me your best price.” He replied: “Are you here to buy now? Otherwise, why should I tell you that. You will just go to another dealer and tell him our price.” I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that I am not allowed to do that. The nerve of me for trying to comparison shop for the second biggest purchase I make (after a house). So I went to another Honda dealer. He gave me his best price and I bought the car, right then and there. I couldn’t care less if the other guy’s price was lower.

Of course, there’s another side to all this: respecting sellers (rs). Customers who don’t do that, even ones with $$$, may get CS, but they don’t deserve sc. That is because, if the employees are not treated well, by the company as well as the customers, how can they truly treat the decent customers well? 

© Henry Mintzberg 2016  Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing hereTo help disseminate these blogs, we now also have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn.

Managing Government, Governing Management

16 June 2016

Government certainly needs to be managed, but management also needs to be governed. It cannot just be let loose on public services, especially in the form of the “New Public Management” that imitates fashionable business practices. Governments no more need to be run like businesses than businesses need to be run like governments.

This New Public Management is hardly new: it began with the Thatcher government, in the U.K. of the 1980s. Yet for many influential people today, the old New Public Management remains the “one best way” to manage government.


Wax statue of Margaret Thatcher by YortW, CC BY 2.0

Government certainly needs to be managed, but management also needs to be governed. It cannot just be let loose on public services, especially in the form of the “New Public Management” that imitates fashionable business practices. Governments no more need to be run like businesses than businesses need to be run like governments.

This New Public Management is hardly new: it began with the Thatcher government, in the U.K. of the 1980s. Yet for many influential people today, the old New Public Management remains the “one best way” to manage government.


Wax statue of Margaret Thatcher by YortW, CC BY 2.0

There is no one best way to manage everything. These practices have done their share of damage to many government departments, and beyond. Many corporations and NGOs have also suffered from what can reduce to a contemporary form of bureaucracy that discourages innovation, damages cultures, and disengages employees.

In essence, the New Public Management seeks to (a) isolate public services, so that (b)  each can be run by an individual manager, who is (c) held accountable for quantitate measures of performance, while (d) treating the recipient of these services as “customers.” Let’s take a look at all this.

Am I a customer of my government, or a citizen and a subject?  I am no customer of my government, thank you, buying services at arm’s length in the marketplace of caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). Do I really need to be called a “customer” to be treated decently?

I am in fact a citizen, who has every right to expect more than a mere customer. This is my government, after all. I am also a subject—whether formally in kingdoms or de facto elsewhere—who has responsibilities to my state. For example, while I may choose to empty my tray at McDonald’s, in our public parks I am expected to keep things tidy. How about soldiers drafted in wartime: are they customers of the government they are expected to serve? And criminals: are they customers of the justice system? True I may be a customer of the state lottery, but frankly, government has no business encouraging me to gamble.

Some activities are in government because caveat emptor cannot possibly apply. Regulation for example. And policing: blacks are citizens of the United States who should not have to beware of their own police. Other activities are funded by government, if not necessarily be delivered by it, to ensure  equality and decency of service. Think of the many health care and educational activities delivered by not-for-profit institutions on behalf of government. (Imagine caveat emptor applied to open heart surgery.)

Can government services be isolated from each other, as well as from political influences, so they can be managed by their managers?   Sure sometimes—again the state lottery. But how about diplomacy?

Let the managers manage” is the motto, just like in business. It sounds good. Isolate the services so that managers themselves can manage them while being held accountable for the results.  (And don’t forget to call these managers CEOs.) Talk about centralization—or more exactly, decentralization from the central state apparatus in order to centralize the department.

Johnson & Johnson can have one brand manager for Tylenol and another for Anusol. But can a government have one brand manager for waging a war and another for diplomatic negotiations to end it? Individuals may be assigned to these activities, but can their responsibilities be isolated? Government activities are wide-ranging, covering so much of life itself, yet can be intricately intertwined, as in life itself.

Nor can the policy-making of many public services be easily separated from the  administration of them. Sure the politicians need to be kept from meddling, especially where there can be graft. But can they remain aloof, for example, when the police are accused of abuse?

This separation of policy-making from administration parallels the belief in business that strategies are formulated at the “top” so that everyone else can implement down below. The superstructure plans and the microstructures execute. It’s all very tidy. Except that the interesting strategies are learned, not planned—sometimes throughout the organization, namely back and forth between managers and other people on the ground. In government this separation is built in, and reinforced by the New Public Management. Yet it can stifle innovation and flexibility.


Free Press and Prentice-Hall International, 1994. Amazon

Can we really rely on performance measures in government?  Measurement has been adopted with a religious fervor in the New Public Management. Look what it has done to the education of our children. I defy anyone to measure adequately what a child learns in a classroom (and you to measure what you are learning in this TWOG). 

Sure we need to measure what we can, just so long as we don’t pretend that everything that matters can be measured. Much that matters in government is not in business precisely because it has no easy measures of performance.

I have been railing on about the dangers of obsessive measuring in a number of these TWOGs. In government, the need to measure everything in sight may now be doing as much harm as corruption. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” is the popular motto. When enough people believe it, we shall have to close down government.

The “balanced scoreboard” is based on the mistaken belief that we can level the playing field across social and economic considerations by measuring both. But that scoreboard can never be balanced because things social are often much harder to measure than things economic. (Once a year I repeat one of my favorite TWOGs about this, called “What could possibly be wrong with efficiency?” Coming soon.) What we need in government, and elsewhere, are balanced brains.

So the next time some civil servant calls you a customer or imposes some artificial measure on you, the next time you meet a “CEO” of some government agency, the next time some candidate for political office claims that government needs to be run more like a business (heard that lately?), tell them that if they wish to manage government effectively, they shall have to respect government for what it is—while governing its management.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016. An earlier article by the same title makes a few of these points and others. See also our book Managing PubliclyFollow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing hereTo help disseminate these blogs, we now also have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn.

Contrary to the Harvard Business School?

8 June 2016

It’s Friday, June 3rd. Early this morning, I found myself giving a talk at the Harvard Business School. It was an awful experience. I arrived 5 minutes late, and suffered the consequences. The professors there were rude and dismissive; nobody wanted to listen. I was interrupted twice by some weird ritual: a huddle of people chanting and dancing off to one side, like cheerleaders at a college football game.

Suddenly, everybody was gone, except one guy—a visitor, he said, quite pleasant. He confirmed that the rest of them were punishing me because I was 5 minutes late. You don’t do that at the Harvard Business School, he said. 5 minutes!

I wondered what would happen if I was 5 minutes late for an audience with the Pope. Surely he would have been kind and attentive, even curious to know why I was late. Of course, the Pope professes what most Harvard Business School professors do not: he challenges capitalism, and consumption.

Then I woke up.

It’s Friday, June 3rd. Early this morning, I found myself giving a talk at the Harvard Business School. It was an awful experience. I arrived 5 minutes late, and suffered the consequences. The professors there were rude and dismissive; nobody wanted to listen. I was interrupted twice by some weird ritual: a huddle of people chanting and dancing off to one side, like cheerleaders at a college football game.

Suddenly, everybody was gone, except one guy—a visitor, he said, quite pleasant. He confirmed that the rest of them were punishing me because I was 5 minutes late. You don’t do that at the Harvard Business School, he said. 5 minutes!

I wondered what would happen if I was 5 minutes late for an audience with the Pope. Surely he would have been kind and attentive, even curious to know why I was late. Of course, the Pope professes what most Harvard Business School professors do not: he challenges capitalism, and consumption.

Then I woke up.

In actual fact, the last time I spoke at the Harvard Business School it was a wonderful experience, even though the room full of faculty knew how critical I had been of their case study method.  I promised not to talk about that, but to describe what we had been doing instead in our own masters programs. They were attentive, kind and considerate, not unlike the Pope. But then again, I didn’t arrive 5 minutes late,

I discussed this dream with Dulcie, my better half, who comes from a different world yet has been so helpful in improving these TWOGs. It’s just the discomfort you feel by so often being five minutes late for things, she said.

I think it’s something else: I worry that my ideas are not being taken seriously enough, whether they are ignored, or dismissed—with me being labelled a “contrarian.” While I am proud of having passed 10k “followers” on Twitter, some of those Harvard professors have passed 100k. Is it because they are Harvard, or mainstream, or better?

Last year I was on a panel with a prominent Canadian. As he left, he told me that I was a contrarian. I took that to mean he didn’t understand what I had said, or at least didn’t care to entertain ideas than ran counter to his mainstream beliefs. How much easier to dismiss me as a contrarian. (Sadly this guy now sits as a minister in our federal government.)

A contrarian opposes for its own sake. I oppose for the sake of trying to improve things. That I oppose so many mainstream ideas no more makes me a contrarian than does it make the world any less screwed up. And it certainly does not justify people who prefer not to notice what is going on. I am sorry Mr. Lincoln, but these days it is possible to fool most of the people most of the time. Or as Paul Shepheard put it in his book What is Architecture, “the mainstream is a current too strong to think in.” It can also take you over a cliff.

Anyway, thank goodness for you. Having read this far, you are at least attentive, maybe even supportive. I do apologize if this has made you 5 minutes late for something. Do take another 5 and tell your “friends” and “followers” about this.

Henry watching the mainstream going over a cliff. Or is it Lisa, his daughter who takes the photos, warning him about going over that cliff?

Because... Before this was posted, Lisa wrote to him about this TWOG:

·      “It takes a while to build up a following.” [Must I skip the quarterly reports, every 15 minutes?]

·      “People who like your work, like your body of work, not necessarily 140 characters of it.” [Are you trying to say that this is about rousing reflections in pages or 2 beyond pithy pronouncements in sentences or 2?]

·      “Far better to have 10 likes/followers, who you can engage in discussion with… than thousands signed up, who don't even notice that you've posted something…” [You mean it’s about quality, not quantity?]

·       “And you never did care about 'fitting in' for the sake of it, so why start now?”  [I get it; I should be good, not strive to be the best.]

Has Lisa been reading my TWOGs? More to the point, have I??

©Henry Mintzberg 2016. I apologize for delaying the TWOG promised last week, about the old New Public Management. I’m working on it. I just don’t control what I dream. About our own programs, please see the International Masters for Managers (impm.org) and the International Masters for Health Leadership (imhl.org). Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing hereTo help disseminate these blogs,we now also have a Facebook page and a LinkedIn.