Curse of the functional-activity-efficiency mindset: my British Gas experience

Reading the press I notice that British Gas are recruiting a Customer Journey Manager.  Without a change in the functional-activity-efficiency mindset it is highly unlikely that this personal will do anything that makes any real difference to customers.  Allow me to illustrate.

Functional-activity-efficiency thinking is rife in just about every business.  The business is organised into functions.  The primary units of work that are managed are activities (not task – too small).  And the metrics that are in place to manage the resources linked to activities are mainly efficiency metrics.  The illusion is that this way of thinking, organising and managing business operations is the smart way.

I can categorically state that from a customer perspective it is not – a more ineffective and wasteful way is hard to imagine.  Let me share with you my experience with British Gas – this happened some two years ago.

I was on the phone to the customer services agent at British Gas to inform her that the pipe feeding the main radiator in my living room was leaking and I needed someone to come and fix it urgently.  The job was entered into the system, a date was agreed – the next day and an engineer was booked.  So far so good: I was relieved that my wooden floor would not be immersed in water.  I felt good at having taken out a £400 a year top of the range Homecare agreement with British Gas.

By 18:30 the next day the engineer had not arrived.  I become concerned so I rang customer services.  The agent told me that that engineer had been cancelled as they did not have enough engineers.  To which I asked why I had not been informed given that I had taken the day off work to be at home: it was that important to me to get the leak sorted out.  I did not get an answer, I did get an apology.  And we booked another date and another engineer.

Two days later the engineer arrived.  I welcomed him to my home as my saviour, offered him a tea/coffee and showed him the leaking pipe in the living room.  He spent some five minutes looking at it. Agreed that there was a leak and that it needed to be sorted out.  Great.  Then he told me that he did not have the equipment to do the job.  He went on to say that he would inform the office, place the order and an engineer would come out to fix the leak.  I was not happy.

I rang British Gas customer services and complained that I did not need an engineer to come out and tell me what I already knew and which I had already told the first customer services agent that I had spoken to.  The agent whilst polite was unhelpful – she did not have access to the engineers system so could not see what he had written.

Two or so days later I called customer services again.  I had to explain the issue from the beginning as the original ticket / job had been closed out as completed.  I was overjoyed at having to spend ten minutes or so to put this agent into the picture.  We agreed another date and another engineer.

The second engineer turned up on the due date; a second day that I had to take off work.  I welcome him, offered him tea/coffee and showed him into the lounge.  Groundhog Day!  He did exactly the same as the first engineer: this is a big job, I am not equipped to do a big job, need to order equipment, someone will be in touch to rearrange another date. Well no-one did get in touch so I rang Customer Services after several days.

Surprise, surprise the second ticket / job had also been closed.  So the customer services agent opened up a new ticket / job and I had to share an even longer story: the issue, the first engineer visit and the second engineer visit.

About two weeks after first contacting British Gas, the third engineer came and took a look at the leaking radiator pipe.  This one took a good look at the central heating system.  After about 30 minutes or so he told me that my British Gas Homecare policy would not cover me for the work that was involved – someone would have to dig up my living room floor to get access to the pipe, find and fix the leak – as it involve an engineer for more than two-three hours.  And that if I wanted the work done then I’d have to ring British Gas, make the payment and schedule the work.  He then packed up and left.

Back on the phone to British Gas Customer Services to make a complaint.  I get an apology and another – new – ticket / job has to be set up.  And I have to explain what the problem is and what has happened to date.  At this point I have lost my patience.

The fourth engineer arrived, I offered him a tea/coffee and showed him into the lounge.  He took a good look around like the last engineer.  Then he told me that to fix the problem pipe was a big job and would destroy my living room floor.  So I asked him if there was another way – a way round the problem.  He took another look at the central heating pipes and said yes.  We agreed to just cut the flow of water to that pipe and put in another pipe to feed the radiator.  Excellent – we have a plan.  Not so excellent – he tells me that he cannot do the work that day.  That he has to schedule the work for another day.  I ask him why.  He tells me that each engineer is given only so long to do a job.  And if the engineers make the figures then they do well financially.  If they do not then they lose out financially.

Now it made sense.  Each of the engineers got that if he did what needed to be done to solve my problem then he would end up being penalised for not making his metrics: time taken to do the job, number of jobs done during the day.

I am now in my fourth week and I am waiting for the engineer to cut the flow to the existing pipe and put in a bypass pipe. I have taken another day off work and the engineer has not turned up.  I ring customer services and the agent tells me that the engineer is ill so the work has to be delayed.  I am utterly frustrated at this point.  And decide to continue as I am truly intrigued as how long it will take to get the job done and what more hurdles I have to go through.  Meanwhile, I continue to put buckets to hold the leaking water, use the mop to clean up the water on the wooden floor.

By the end of week six the work is completed. The fourth engineer the one that was helpful, resourceful, truthful came back and spent half about half a day to do the work. I have cut the story short: in the end the job got done because I had got utterly fed up of repeated failure, I had escalated my complaint and finally the field services manager for my region had called me and told me he was sorry for my experience and he took personal responsibility to get my problem fixed.  He was a man of his word, thank you and all the best wherever you are.

Why did it take six weeks to fix a leaking radiator pipe? Why did I have to make numerous phone calls to customer services – each time explaining the whole thing from the start?  Why did it take a total of six engineer visits to do what turned out to be a four hour piece of work?  What was the total cost – customer services time, engineer time, travel costs, field services manager time – to British Gas?

Did I have such a poor experience because the customer services agents or the engineers were incompetent.  No – they were all too competent they did what the system incentivised them to do.  So what did the system incentivise them to do – to make the functional-activity-efficiency metrics.  Specifically:

  • Each customer services agent was keen to make her metrics (time to close the call, first time resolution) so she took the details, booked the engineer, closed the customer services ticket; and
  • Each engineer (except the last one) saw what needed to be done, flagged it up as a big job needed special equipment, made it someone else’s problem and closed the job in his system so he could make his metrics;

So what was missing, if it had been present, would have encouraged more effective behaviour – the work gets done in one engineer visit taking four hour and a satisfied customer:

  • Making one person, one department responsible for the customer – to take ownership of the customer problem, keep the customer informed, see the job through to completion, anticipate and deal with things that can or do go wrong;
  • Looking at the work that needs to be done and the impact that it has from the customers view and putting in the metrics that go with that: for example time from when ticket is opened to when it closed and confirmed as being closed by the customer; number of calls the customer has to make to the customer services; number of engineer visits; number of days customer has to take off work etc

The benefits of looking at the work from an integrated / customer perspective is that it results in less wastage (one engineer one visit rather than four engineers and six visits) and satisfied customers (the leaking pipe could and should have been fixed the next day).

How did the story end?  I did not renew my Homecare agreement with British Gas. Why?  Because when I shared my story with my social circle I found that they had had a similar experience.  Like me they had found that British Gas did a great job of coming out and fixing small jobs – toilet overflow, leaking taps, stuck water valves, annual boiler service – and a poor job of dealing with the more important jobs: boiler breakdown, central heating leaks etc.

Author: Maz Iqbal

Experienced management consultant working at the intersection of strategy, customer, and technology. Combine a tendency to think strategically with a penchant for getting my hands dirty at the coalface of implementation.