Two and half months ago, I moved houses in London and have spent most of those most shocked by the customer service or lack of it, when it comes to basic services like a phone line or plumbing repairs. I’ve dealt with multiple service providers and been promised many things and then heard all the excuses in the book; at times I’ve felt like a teacher being told “a dog ate my homework”. One of the most interesting parts of the whole experience thus far has been the frequency I have been told about the internal processes of the various companies – about which department is responsible for this, which is responsible for that; about escalation protocols; and about the practice of promising the customer what they want to hear, even though you are not responsible for delivering on the promise. I’ve also been fascinated by the so-called “security” processes, which requires me to give lots of information to apparently “prove” I am who I say I am, but has no such requirement for the service provider to do the same – in fact, when I ask them to prove who they are, they get very angry with me and “can’t” proceed with the call.
Telling me the internal processes of the company seems to be meant to accomplish two things: more information for the customer and a way of distancing the staff member from responsibility for the situation. Yet, it tends to only make me more and more frustrated as I really don’t care about the internal processes – I just want a phone line installed in my house as they promised they could do – and I want someone in the company to take responsibility to fulfil the “contract” we have entered into.
All of this has led me to think about aid agencies relationships with aid recipients (or beneficiaries as they tend to be called). As aid agencies, we tend to extract a lot of data from the communities – we love our assessments of what has happened, who has been affected, what is the size of the household, what is the nutritional status of the family, and on and on. We tend to descend on a community, usually dressed in T-shirts brandishing our agency logo and colours. We ask for a lot of information and often promise much, however similar to my own service provider experience, we don’t share a lot about ourselves (we definitely don’t want beneficiaries showing up in our offices!) and those who do the assessment and promise aid are not the ones responsible for delivering the aid.
I can recall many situations in conversations with community members, who had either received the wrong aid or none at all, where we tried to reason with them and explain how our internal processes worked. Similar to my own experience, I really don’t think the people affected by the disaster care about our internal processes, they just want to receive what they have been promised and they want someone to take responsibility to make it happen.
While working on this Speed Evidence Project, it’s easy to forget who our “customer” is. It’s easy to think that our “customers” are all the internal departments – operations, marketing, communications, etc. – within our organisation. And to some extent, this is true. However, when we forget that our “customer” is the community affected by the disaster, we lose sight of our goal and become an end in ourselves. The Speed Evidence project seeks to improve our analysis and consolidation of information in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, so that we can improve the speed and quality of the aid given. While it is important to be monitoring is we are providing the right information to internal departments, etc. if, in the end, if the aid is not delivered and is not appropriate, we can have the best systems in the world, but be failing at our mission.
Our customer must always be the communities affected by disasters and we must be providing them with information that they deem relevant (not us) and be taking responsibility for fulfilling the promises we make to them (not expecting others to fulfil them).
And no, after 2.5 months of trying, I still don’t have a phone line in my house in one of the most “advanced” societies on the planet. It’s ridiculous.