Richard Shaw says that when it comes to the electrical industry, big is not always best

When Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones blasted out the immortal lyrics of I Can’t Get No Satisfaction they were expressing the frustrations and anxieties of a whole generation. Unfortunately, those lyrics also resonate in today’s besieged business world, no more so than in our electrical industry.

There are undoubtedly increases in customer complaints and levels of dissatisfaction. As a rule of thumb, the larger the company you are dealing with, the worse the service you get. At the root of this problem is the fact that most UK electrical companies are corporate-owned. Nothing wrong with that, I hear you say. Until, that is, we get to differentiation and customer service.

We are now seeing a polarisation in the methods and approaches companies adopt to meet the challenges of the economic downturn, while at the same time satisfying their customers. Over the past few years we have seen the big global corporations in our industry bloating on more and more borrowed money, swallowing up all in their wake – only to end up destroying their prey by negating the very things that made them successful in the first place.

This is not wholly surprising. The major global companies are desperately trying to please their ever-demanding shareholders. By sucking up anyone who gets in their way, they diminish the number of choices we all have. At the other end of the scale, we have the SMEs, which are trying to grow their businesses and expand their horizons by offering more to their customers.

This relentless acquisition process has not only affected customer satisfaction – it is gradually destroying customer choice. No change is ever worthwhile unless it actually brings about an improvement for the customers. It is rare that acquired firms are left alone to continue to flourish.

Nobody bothers to look at cultural differences in the way that companies deal with customers. Senior corporate people are too busy chasing synergies and cost reductions to worry about customers and what the experience at the coalface is like.

There was a famous English professor in the 1950s called Cyril Northcote Parkinson (he of Parkinson’s Law fame). One of his theories states that the size and inherent inefficiency of an organisation is determined not by its level of sales and customer interaction but by its own ego and drive to become bigger and bigger.

Perhaps for ‘satisfaction’ we can substitute the word ‘quality’, for in essence the two are one and the same.

If you walked into most companies in our industry today you would find clear evidence of serious intent to improve customer satisfaction – so why are there so few who can do it really well?

The irony is that if you walked into most companies in our industry today you would find clear evidence of serious intent to improve customer satisfaction – so why are there so few who can do it really well?

What we tend to forget is that it is really all about people. No structure, system or process can substitute for human judgement, common sense, integrity, trust and courtesy. Too often these cornerstones of human interaction get forgotten in the management babble that is spouted day in, day out in many corporations.

We have created a situation where some companies actually do believe that having a rigid and inflexible process to follow is far better than allowing people to make their own judgements. It’s an approach that unfortunately has a detrimental effect on our ability to learn by experience, and subsequently to improve things next time.

The true test of any company and its ability to satisfy its customers is really put to the test when things go wrong. If a company is proactive it will take the lead and the customer will immediately be put at ease and feel they can trust what they are being told. If the opposite happens and the customer has to do the chasing, then usually it’s a telltale sign that the company is only paying lip service to customer satisfaction.

The UK electrical industry is built on relationships between people, and whenever firms have tried to circumvent this they have usually come unstuck. It is the people who are the glue that binds everything together, not some process dreamt up in a corporate ivory tower. If we lose sight of this, we are in danger of eroding the relationships and trust that exist between supplier and customer.

The successful companies of the future will be the ones that have understood the importance of people at the heart of their organisation. The businesses that can deliver satisfaction on all fronts, in good times and bad, and really take care of their staff and customers, are the ones that will prevail in the long term.

I once worked for GE legend Jack Welch. He believed vehemently that large firms should seek to emulate the small companies if they wanted to be faster, better and more customer-focused. He wasn’t wrong.

Richard Shaw is managing director of GreenBrook Electrical